Black hole work adding to Einstein theory nets physics Nobel for trio


By Niels C Sorrells and Lennart Simonsson,

STOCKHOLM – “Discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole”, garnered this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for an international trio of scientists, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Tuesday (6).

British born Roger Penrose, 89, will get half the 10-million-kronor (1.1-million-dollar) award for discovering that black hole formation “is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity,” the principle made famous by Albert Einstein.

The other half will go to German-born Reinhard Genzel, 68, and US citizen Andrea Ghez – now the fourth woman to win the prize – for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”.

“The discoveries of this year’s laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects,” read a statement from the academy.

Black holes are dense objects in space that have such intense gravity that they attract everything near them, even light.

Penrose, who is with the University of Oxford in Britain, used mathematical methods to prove that black holes are “a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity,” the academy said.

Einstein’s 1915 theory describes how everything and everyone in the universe is held in the grip of gravitation.

A key article by Penrose – who earned his doctorate in 1957 from the University of Cambridge in Britain – was published in 1965, the same year Andrea Ghez was born.

The academy said Genzel and Ghez each led teams of astronomers that, since the early 1990s, focused on a region at the centre of our galaxy.

Genzel earned his doctorate in 1978 from the University of Bonn. He is director at Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and professor at the University of California in Berkeley in the US.

“The measurements of these two groups agree, with both finding an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds,” the academy said.

Ghez, 55, recalled how she experienced “doubt and excitement” about the discovery and “the feeling when you are at the frontier of research to always question what you are seeing.”

New York City-born Ghez said she was “thrilled” about the award.

“I take very seriously the responsibility associated with being the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize [in Physics],” she said.

“I hope I can inspire other young women into the field,” added Ghez, who is professor at the University of California in Los Angeles in the United States.

Ghez was speaking by phone to reporters at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, minutes after learning of her Nobel win.

She also noted the importance of science that is being challenged and questioned in parts of the world, including the US.

“I think today I feel more passionate about the teaching side of my job because it’s so important to convince the younger generation that their ability to question and their ability to think is crucial to the future of the world,” Ghez said.

The physics award was the second of the week’s annual award announcements.

Last year, James Peebles, a dual citizen of Canada and the US, and Swiss duo Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were awarded for contributions to the understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos.

This year’s award week opened on Monday (5) with the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and Briton Michael Houghton for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

Recipients of prizes in the fields of chemistry, literature and peace will be announced later this week. The economics award is due next week.

With the exception of economics, the prizes were endowed by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-96), the inventor of dynamite.

The actual awards – comprising a medal and a diploma – are set to be presented on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

Organizers have earlier said that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the laureates in science, literature and peace are likely to receive their awards in their respective home countries instead of being asked to travel to Stockholm for the award ceremony.

Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said on Tuesday the laureates would be invited to Stockholm next year.

The Peace Prize ceremony in the Norwegian capital of Oslo has been moved to a smaller venue with fewer guests. This year’s peace laureate or laureates will either be presented in person or asked to participate in an online event.


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