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Trio win Nobel for black hole discoveries

STOCKHOLM: A screen displays the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics – (from left) Briton Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US – during a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences yesterday. – AFP

STOCKHOLM: Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US won the Nobel Physics Prize yesterday for their research into black holes, the Nobel jury said. The physicists were selected “for their discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole,” the Nobel Committee said.

Penrose, 89, was honored for showing “that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes”, while Genzel, 68, and Ghez, 55, were jointly awarded for discovering “that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the center of our galaxy,” the jury said. Ghez is just the fourth woman to receive the physics prize since 1901 when the first Nobel prizes were handed out.

“I feel delighted to be recognized in that way because I think having visible role models can make a huge impact on young women thinking about becoming scientists,” Ghez told AFP. The term “black hole” refers to a point in space where matter is so compressed as to create a gravity field from which even light cannot escape.

Penrose, a professor at the University of Oxford who worked closely with famed physicist Stephen Hawking, used mathematical modeling to prove back in 1965 that black holes can form, becoming an entity from which nothing, not even light, can escape. His calculations proved that black holes – super dense objects formed when a heavy star collapses under the weight of its own gravity – are a direct consequence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Genzel and Ghez have led research since the early 1990s focusing on a region called Sagittarius A* at the center of the Milky Way. Using the world’s largest telescopes, they discovered an extremely heavy, invisible object – around 4 million times greater than the mass of our Sun – that pulls on surrounding stars, giving our galaxy its characteristic swirl. The pair in particular developed methods to see through the huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust to the center of the Milky Way, creating new techniques to compensate for the image distortion caused by Earth’s atmosphere. In April 2019, astronomers unveiled the first photo of a black hole.

Martin Ward, a professor of astronomy at Durham University, called the work of the trio “a great example of theoretical insight and prediction followed by state-of-the-art observational evidence”. “Using classical Newtonian mechanics the nearest super massive black hole at our galactic centre was revealed, and so ‘darkness made visible’,” Ward said in a statement.

Genzel is a director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and a professor at the University of California. Ghez is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California. While the existence of black holes is no longer in doubt, the Nobel Committee chair David Haviland also noted that they “still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate further research.”

The sentiment was echoed when Ghez was asked if she understood what is happening inside a black hole. “We don’t know, we have no idea what’s inside a black hole and that’s what makes these things such exotic objects,” Ghez told reporters in Stockholm via a telephone link. “They really represent the breakdown of our physical understanding of the laws of physics,” she added.

The trio will share the Nobel prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million), with half going to Penrose and the other half jointly to Genzel and Ghez. They would normally receive their prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on Dec 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament. But the in-person ceremony has been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

This year’s Nobels season kicked off Monday when the medicine prize was awarded to Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice together with Briton Michael Houghton for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, paving the way for a cure. Coming up later in the week are the prizes in chemistry, literature and peace, with the economics prize wrapping things up on Monday, Oct 12. – AFP

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