Three scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for advancing our understanding of black holes, the all-consuming monsters that lurk in the darkest parts of the universe and still confound astronomers.
Briton Roger Penrose, German Reinhard Genzel and American Andrea Ghez explained to the world these dead ends of the cosmos that devour light and even time. Staples of both science fact and fiction, black holes are still not completely understood, but they are deeply connected, somehow, to the creation of galaxies, where the stars and life exist.
Penrose, of the University of Oxford, received half of this year’s prize for discovering that Albert Einstein’s famous general theory of relativity predicts the formation of black holes, the Nobel Committee said.
Genzel, who is at both the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of California, Berkeley, and Ghez, of the University of California, Los Angeles, received the second half of the prize for discovering a “supermassive compact object” at the centre of our galaxy. That object was also a black hole, albeit a giant one.
The prize celebrates what the Nobel Committee called “one of the most exotic objects in the universe” and ones that “still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research.”
Black holes are at the centre of every galaxy, and smaller ones are dotted around the universe. Just their existence is mind-bending, taking what people experience every day on Earth _ light and time _ and warping them in such a way that seems unreal.
“Black holes, because they are so hard to understand, is what makes them so appealing,” Ghez told The Associated Press on Tuesday morning. “I really think of science as a big, giant puzzle.”
Ghez, 55, went to college as a math major because the concept of infinity fascinated her. Because time slows and even stops in these black holes, Ghez said she is still studying infinity in a way.
“You get this mixing of space and time,” Ghez said, adding that’s what makes black holes so hard to understand.
Penrose, 89, proved with mathematics that the formation of black holes was possible, based heavily on Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
“Einstein did not himself believe that black holes really exist, these super-heavyweight monsters that capture everything that enters them,” the Nobel Committee said. “Nothing can escape, not even light.”
Martin Rees, the British astronomer royal, noted that Penrose triggered a “renaissance” in the study of relativity in the 1960s, and that, together with a young Stephen Hawking, he helped firm up evidence for the Big Bang and black holes.
“Penrose and Hawking are the two individuals who have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity,” Rees said. “Sadly, this award was too much delayed to allow Hawking to share the credit.”
Hawking died in 2018, and Nobel prizes are only awarded to the living.
In the 1990s, Genzel and Ghez, leading separate groups of astronomers, trained their sights on the dust-covered centre of our Milky Way galaxy, a region called Sagittarius A (asterisk), where something strange was going on.
Both teams found that there was “an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds,” according to the committee.
It was a black hole. Not just an ordinary black hole, but a supermassive one, 4 million times the mass of our sun.
The first image Ghez got was in 1995, using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii that had just gone online. A year later, another image seemed to indicate that the stars near the centre of the Milky Way were circling something. A third image led Ghez and Genzel to think they were really on to something.
A fierce competition developed between Ghez and Genzel, whose team was using an array of telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.
“Their rivalry elevated them to greater scientific heights,” said said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb.
Speaking after the award was announced, Genzel, 68, said the time may have come to set competition aside.
“We need to see whether we’re going to continue with this or whether it’s now time, since we’ve both been crowned, for us to work together,” he said, noting the vast funding required to built ever bigger and better instruments that might one day disprove Einstein’s theory and open up a new realm of physics.
Ghez is the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, after Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and Donna Strickland in 2018.
“I hope I can inspire other young women into the field. It’s a field that has so many pleasures. And if you’re passionate about the science, there’s so much that can be done,” Ghez said.
It is common for several scientists who worked in related fields to share the prize. Last year’s prize went to Canadian-born cosmologist James Peebles for theoretical work about the early moments after the Big Bang, and Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for discovering a planet outside our solar system.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million krona (more than $1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The amount was increased recently to adjust for inflation.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.
The other prizes, to be announced in the coming days, are for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland, Jordans from Berlin. AP Science Writer Christina Larson in Washington contributed to this report.