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Nobel prize for physics won by black hole pioneers

Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez

Ill. Niklas Elmehed. © Nobel Media.

Discoveries about black holes have won this year’s Nobel prize in physics, with the award split between three people. One half has been awarded to Roger Penrose and the other half to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez.

Penrose, at the University of Oxford, was recognised for his theoretical research on how stars collapse to form black holes. Genzel, at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and Ghez, at the University of California, Los Angeles, won for their study of Sagittarius A*, the dense object at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy that is now believed to be a supermassive black hole.

Ghez said her discovery in 2000 of the “supermassive compact object” had prompted both doubt and excitement. “You have to prove to yourself you’re really seeing what you’re think you’re seeing,” she told a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today.

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She is only the fourth woman awarded the prize, with previous winners including Marie Curie in 1903. “I hope I can inspire other young women into the field,” she said. Asked what her message was at a time when the importance of science was being put in doubt in the US, she said “science is so important”. She added that she was more passionate than ever before about the teaching side of her job.

The existence of black holes was suggested by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but Penrose’s mathematical calculations on black hole formation in 1965 firmed up the idea, said David Haviland, chair of the Nobel committee, at the press conference. “He lay the theoretical foundation to say yes, these objects exist, you can find these objects if you go out and look for them.”

Ghez and Genzel then went on to prove that such objects exist, by monitoring three stars around Sagittarius A*, which they couldn’t see directly. The work involved years of observations, and contributed to ongoing efforts to take a picture of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

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