3 Share Physics Nobel Prize for Black Hole Research

This year’s prize highlights "the darkest secrets of the universe."
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Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- The 2020 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to three scientists "for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity," and "for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy."

Half of the prize goes to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford in the U.K., and the other half is shared between Reinhard Genzel of Max Planck Institute in Garching, Germany, and of University of California, Berkeley, and Andrea Ghez of University of California, Los Angeles.

"This year's prize celebrates the discovery of one of the most exotic objects in our universe -- the black hole," said David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, during a press conference. "Roger Penrose showed that black hole might actually exist, forming in a stable and robust process consistent with the theory of general relativity."

In 1965, 10 years after Einstein's death, Penrose solved a riddle raised by Einstein's general theory of relativity of whether black holes could physically exist. Within them, all known laws of physics would break down, outlining a boundary for our then understanding of the universe.

Genzel and Ghez, on the other hand, helped prove the existence of black holes, by using the world's largest telescopes to focus on a region called Sagittarius A*, where stars were seen being slung around by the otherwise invisible black hole near the center of galaxy.

"Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez led research teams to make precise observations over many years, which pointed to the existence of a supermassive black hole in the center of our very own galaxy," said Haviland.

"It was Reinhard Genzel, Andrea Ghez, and their teams who did it. They turned the telescope towards the center of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years away, where there were suspicions that something strange was going on," said Ulf Danielsson, member of the Nobel committee, also during a press conference. "What they found was incredible."

The winners will share a prize of 10.0 million Swedish kronor (about $1,100,000). Ghez is the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, joining previous female laureates Marie Curie (1903), Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963) and Donna Strickland (2018).

An animation of the stars orbiting around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Images taken from 1995 through 2019 were used to track the movements of the stars. This animation was created by Andrea Ghez and her research team at UCLA and are from data sets obtained with the W. M. Keck Telescopes. [Credit: UCLA Galactic Center Group and the W.M. Keck Observatory Laser Team]

An animation of the stars orbiting around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Images taken from 1995 through 2019 were used to track the movements of the stars. This animation was created by Andrea Ghez and her research team at UCLA and are from data sets obtained with the W. M. Keck Telescopes. [Credit: UCLA Galactic Center Group and the W.M. Keck Observatory Laser Team]

For more of Inside Science's coverage of the 2020 Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry, please visit our Nobel coverage page. For our predictions of the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry (and to review our physiology or medicine picks), please read our predictions story.

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Yuen Yiu covers the Physics beat for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.