Massive news, literally: Three super-boffins awarded Nobel Prize in physics for their black-hole breakthroughs

Congratulations to Sir Roger Penrose, Andrea Gehz, Reinhard Genzel

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The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to three scientists for their work probing some of the most massive and strangest objects in the universe – black holes.

Professor Sir Roger Penrose, a British mathematician and popular science author, was given half the share of the ten million Swedish kronor (£866,000 or $1.12m) prize “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

The 89-year-old super-boffin is most well-known for working with Professor Stephen Hawking to prove that black holes exist and were the product of extreme gravitational effects described by Einstein’s theories. Although Einstein described how gravity is the curvature of spacetime, he failed to see how its effects created such bizarre voids when stars collapsed, and remained unconvinced about black holes.

Einstein died ten years before he could read Sir Roger's seminal paper, “Gravitational Collapse and Space-Time Singularities,” published in 1965. Sir Roger used topology equations to prove that light can’t escape and time stands still at the center of black holes, within which a singularity would form.

“It is a huge honour to receive this prize,” Sir Roger said. “In 1964 the existence of black boles was not properly appreciated. Since then they have become of increased importance in our understanding of the universe and I believe this could increase in unexpected ways in the future.”

Numerical simulation of two black holes that inspiral and merge, emitting gravitational waves. The simulated gravitational wave signal is consistent with the observation made by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors on 21 May 2019 (GW190521)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... a pair of black holes coalesced resulting in largest gravitational wave we've seen

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His mathematical proofs paved the way for the second half of the prize split between physics professors Andrea Gehz, 55, at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Reinhard Genzel, 68, at the University of California, Berkeley. The pair were singled out “for [their] discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.”

Genzel led a group of scientists who detected Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way. They tracked the motion of stars at the center of the galaxy to show they were all orbiting a giant invisible object, and developed a “remarkable technique in which he can measure very accurately and determine quite precisely the mass and behavior of stars circulating around the galactic center,” Charles Townes, a fellow Nobel laureate, who helped set up the observational program into the center of the Milky Way at UC Berkeley in 1967, previously said. Townes died in 2015.

Last but not least, Gehz used the W.M. Keck Telescope to study the center of the galaxy in infrared. She calculated that Sagittarius A* is a whopping 4.1 million solar masses. Last year, she was also part of a team who spotted a sudden surge of activity from the black hole chowing down on its largest meal of gas and dust.

“I’m thrilled and incredibly honored to receive a Nobel Prize in physics,” she said.

“We have cutting-edge tools and a world-class research team, and that combination makes discovery tremendous fun. Our understanding of how the universe works is still so incomplete. The Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn." ®

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