The Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday crowned the British Roger Penrose, the German Reinhard Genzel and the American Andrea Ghez, three pioneers in research on black holes, regions of the Universe from which nothing can escape, not even the light.
Penrose won the famous award for discovering “that the formation of a black hole is a strong prediction of general relativity theory”, while Genzel and Ghez were awarded for “the discovery of a compact supermassive object in the center of our galaxy ”, millions of times bigger than our Sun, explained the Nobel jury when announcing the prize in Stockholm.
The British winner receives half the prize of 80 million Swedish kronor (C $ 1.2 million), while the other two share the second half, said the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.
Andrea Ghez said “take it very seriously” to become the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, the most masculine of the six prizes. The black hole, “we don’t know what it contains, we have no idea, that’s why it’s so exotic, it’s part of the plot, it pushes the limits of our understanding”, she enthusiastically joined by phone by the Nobel Foundation.
Penrose, 89, used mathematical modeling to prove as early as 1965 that black holes can form, becoming an entity that nothing, not even light, can escape. His calculations proved that black holes are a direct consequence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Since the early 1990s, co-winners Reinhard Genzel, 68, and Andrea Ghez, 55, have been researching an area called Sagittarius A * at the center of the Milky Way. Using the world’s largest telescopes, they discovered an extremely heavy and invisible object – about 4 million times the mass of our Sun – that pulls at surrounding stars, giving our galaxy its characteristic vortex.
Supermassive black holes are an astrophysical conundrum, especially as to how they get so big. Their training is at the heart of modern astrophysical research. Scientists believe they are devouring, at breakneck speed, all the gases emitted by the very dense galaxies around them.
As they are invisible, we can only see them in contrast, by observing the phenomena they cause in their immediate environment. A first revolutionary image was revealed to the world in April 2019.
[Le trou noir], we don’t know what’s in it, we have no idea, that’s why it’s so exotic, it’s part of the plot, it pushes the limits of our understanding.
Astrophysics and quantum physics, centered on the infinitely small, were considered favorites by experts for this Nobel 2020.
In 2019, the physics prize had already distinguished three cosmologists, the Canadian-American James Peebles, who followed in those of Albert Einstein to shed light on the origins of the universe, and the Swiss Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz who, the first, revealed the existence of a planet outside the solar system.
A Nobel season in the shadow of COVID-19
While the Nobel Prizes are going to be announced as scheduled this week, the coronavirus has prompted the cancellation of the physical award ceremony on December 10 in Stockholm.
On Monday, the Medicine Prize confirmed the overwhelming dominance of Americans in the Nobel Prize for scientists by honoring Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, alongside Briton Michael Houghton, for their role in the discovery of the virus responsible for hepatitis C.
Chemistry will follow on Wednesday, where a major biomedical discovery could be rewarded: the “CRISPR scissors”, allowing to cut a precise gene, developed by the French Emmanuelle Charpentier and the American Jennifer Doudna. Another pioneer in gene sequencing, the American Leroy Hood, could be consecrated, according to Swedish radio SR.
Other nobelisables: nanocrystals, as well as the work of the Americans Harry Gray, Richard Holm and Stephen Lippard on the role of metal ions in biology.
The Literature Prize, the most anticipated event for the general public with Friday Peace in Oslo, will be announced Thursday by the Swedish Academy.
The only award not provided for in the famous will of the Swedish inventor, the Economics Prize “in memory of Alfred Nobel”, created in 1968, will close the season next Monday.