The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists Tuesday for their discoveries around one of the most fascinating and mysterious parts of our known universe: black holes.
Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez were jointly awarded half of the annual Prize for their discovery of a compact, supermassive object indicative of a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Richard Penrose was awarded half of the Prize for mathematical methods proving that black holes are indeed a consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Einstein’s 1915 theory states that massive objects, like planets, stars, and supermassive blackholes distort space-time around them, which gives us gravity. The more massive an object is, the stronger its distortion is, and thus the stronger its gravitational pull is.
For decades, black holes were a theoretical explanation for what occurs when objects become so massive that light can’t escape their gravitational pull, but even Einstein himself didn’t think they existed. Penrose, a professor at the University of Oxford, proved that they could form in 1965 with a mathematical model. Our first actual image of a black hole only just occurred in 2019.
Genzel and Ghez’s work has involved observing the center of our own galaxy, a region known as Sagittarius A*, since the 1990s, using the biggest telescopes on Earth. What they found was a whole bunch of stars spiraling around the galaxy’s center at ludicrous speeds, evidence that they’re being pulled by a supermassive black hole.
Ghez, a professort at University of California, Los Angeles, is only the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. She told the committee in a phone interview that she wanted her example of success to encourage other women to explore her field of work.
“I hope I can inspire other young women into the field,” she said. “It’s a field that has so many pleasures, and if you are passionate about the science, there’s so much that can be done.”
Genzel, of the Max Planck Institute and University of California, Berkeley told Reuters that, when he received the call, he was emotional. “I cried a little bit,” he said.
Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Peace, Literature, and Economics will be announced in the coming days. Each Prize is worth 10 million krona, which is about $1.1 million.