“The timing is perfect”

Renowned planetary researcher and Nobel laureate Didier Queloz is moving to ETH Zurich, where he will be joining with other professors to study the origins of life in a new centre.
Didier Queloz will head a new centre at ETH Zurich that will address a fundamental scientific question. (Image: University of Geneva)

In 1995, together with his doctoral advisor Michel Mayor, Didier Queloz caused an international furore. At the University of Geneva, the two Swiss astronomers discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star. The duo garnered the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for their groundbreaking discovery.

In recent years, Queloz, who not only holds a chair at the University of Geneva but has also been a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory since 2013, has participated in the detection of numerous other planets. At the same time, the focus of his research is increasingly on searching for planets that are potentially habitable, hoping thereby to find greater insight into how life on Earth may have originated.

This summer, Didier Queloz is leaving his alma mater to take up his post as Professor of Physics at ETH Zurich where, as designated director, he will help establish the new ETH Center for the Origin and Prevalence of Life with the involvement of professors from five departments.

Mr. Queloz, what made you decide to accept a professorship in Zurich?
Didier Queloz: The reason for my move is very simple: ETH Zurich is working on an absolutely fantastic project. We intend to explore a new area of research that focuses on the origin of life. The timing is perfect.

Why’s that?
In recent years, rapid progress relevant to this topic has been made in various research fields. In my own area, astronomy, we have discovered thousands of new planets, including smaller stellar objects, that could support life. We were able to detect atmospheres on a number of planets and now know a fair bit about the composition of these celestial bodies. The second key field is researching our own planetary system, particularly the exploration of Mars. Mars is enormously important for our work because its development over the first billion years was very similar to that of Earth. Not much has happened on Mars since then, while plate tectonics have caused dramatic changes in the surface of Earth. Mars shows us what Earth may have looked like some 3.5 billion years ago.

Why is that crucial in unravelling the origin of life?
It’s important because that is when it is assumed that life began on Earth – perhaps on Mars, too. Moreover, other objects in our solar system also warrant a closer look: Venus, for instance, or Jupiter’s moons. These objects reveal the potential composition of the different exoplanets.

But don’t we also need biologists and chemists if we want to investigate the origin of life?
Yes, their expertise is also vital. In the last few years, considerable strides have been made in biochemistry and molecular chemistry as well. Today, biochemists can use computers to calculate completely new compounds and are able to simulate networks of chemical reactions. These networks probably served as catalysts for the origins of life. Geoscientists, too, are indispensable as they can tell us what conditions were like on Earth when life evolved.

And the new centre will bring all these different fields together?
Yes. Advances in the aforementioned fields have completely changed the status quo. It is imperative that these disciplines now join forces in order for us to take the next step. My experience in Cambridge shows that interdisciplinary dialogue helps bring forth new ideas. A new community is currently forming at large universities such as Harvard and Caltech, as well as Cambridge. Researchers from very different fields aim to work together in solving a fundamental problem. It’s still unclear how far we’ll get but we predict that we will be able to make great progress over the next few years.

«It is imperative that the different disciplines now join forces
in order for us to take the next step.»     
Didier Queloz

So this community hasn’t been established at ETH Zurich yet?
There are plenty of fantastic researchers at ETH Zurich and quite a few who plan to head in precisely this direction. ETH Zurich has the potential to lead the field in this regard, which will also boost Switzerland’s standing as a hotspot for research.

What will it take for this new community to get off the ground?
You have to be prepared to venture into the uncharted territory between the established disciplines. That’s challenging, but also rewarding. I used to have the naïve notion that I would be able to prove that extraterrestrial life exists if I could find oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere. Geochemists showed me that this idea is too simplistic. I didn’t hear this from other astronomers but from scientists in a very different subject area. Interdisciplinary dialogue helps you question your own conclusions and realise if they are incorrect.

And what is needed at the institutional level?
Good networking is essential, both within ETH Zurich and in the international arena. To attract talented young academics, we have to raise awareness that we are researching a fundamental issue at ETH Zurich. But that’s not enough: we also have to offer the next generation of researchers good prospects so they can establish themselves in this field.

What do you see as your specific role at ETH Zurich?
First of all, I can contribute my astrophysical expertise. With my team, I will continue to look for new planets that could support life. That will still be my core topic. Furthermore, I can bring my experience to bear in terms of how to set up networks and address research issues that don’t fit neatly into any one traditional field. ETH Zurich boasts a great deal of creativity, which we now have to develop to the full. In this sense, I see my role as a builder of bridges.

«Is there life on these planets? Everyone is obsessed with this question. We should turn this potential to our advantage.»      Didier Queloz

You seem to be fascinated by the topic. Do you also consider yourself an ambassador?
It’s actually quite remarkable. Nowadays, we have an excellent understanding of the composition of living organisms, of how our bodies function and how to cure diseases. But how did it all start? How exactly did life come into being? We still don’t know. It’s a fundamental question, similar to the origin of the universe or the beginning of time. And who knows: maybe by examining this all-important question, we will discover completely new applications in the field of medicine. To give you one prime example: we all use GPS navigation systems every day as a matter of course. But if Albert Einstein hadn’t formulated his theory of relativity more than 100 years ago, this technology wouldn’t exist today. There is another aspect that is important to me.

What’s that?
When Michel Mayor and I discovered the first exoplanet almost 30 years ago, people would immediately ask whether there was life on it. Everyone is obsessed with this question – and rightly so. We should turn this potential to our advantage. Society needs people who are both interested in science and familiar with the scientific approach, which is why I often give public lectures. And I hope that my language skills will soon improve to such an extent that I am able to hold a presentation in German – but I can’t promise that it will be Swiss German.