Scientists Penrose, Genzel and Ghez get Nobel Prize for revealing universe’s ‘darkest secrets’
The $1.1 million prize was shared by three scientists credited with unraveling some of the trickiest mysteries of black holes, a point in space with a force of gravity so strong that even light cannot escape.Updated: Oct 07, 2020, 00:52 IST
Even if everything you know about black holes comes from Hollywood flicks — remember Matthew McConaughey journeying into the collapsed star Gargauntua in Interstellar? — the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics announced on Tuesday should give you some reason to cheer.
The $1.1 million prize was shared by three scientists credited with unraveling some of the trickiest mysteries of black holes, a point in space with a force of gravity so strong that even light cannot escape.
Britain’s Roger Penrose — whose popular science books on the physics of the universe inspired a generation of young stargazers — won one half of the prize for proving that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, one of the major building blocks of modern physics that connects law of gravity to space-time geometry.
Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US won the other half of the prize for discovering that an invisible and extremely heavy object — a supermassive black hole — governs the orbits of stars at the centre of our galaxy.
“It was an extreme honour and great pleasure to hear the news this morning in a slightly unusual way — I had to get out of my shower to hear it,” said Penrose, paying tribute to his late colleague Stephen Hawking, who he said deserved a share of the prize.
Ghez — only the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel physics prize — said she hoped it would inspire others to enter the field. Genzel was on a Zoom call with colleagues when the phone rang. “Just like in the movies, a voice said: ‘This is Stockholm’,” the 68-year-old astrophysicist told Reuters. “I cried a little bit.”
India’s scientific community rejoiced at the news.
Padma Bhushan SM Chitre, mathematician and astrophysicist, Penrose’s schoolmate at Cambridge and longtime friend, said the accolade came “at long last” and capped many awards Penrose picked over his almost 70-year career.
“He’s now 89 and still working just as hard,” said Chitre. “His work is on the most obtuse of subjects, and as with the singularity theorems he developed with Stephen Hawking, he has found unexpected ways to work out the mathematical details.”
Black holes have fascinated scientists for decades because understanding them is crucial to exploring the origin of matter and galaxies.
In 1915, Einstein predicted that space and time could be warped by the force of gravity. Yet he did not actually believe in black holes, and finding a way to prove their existence baffled scientists for another 50 years.
It was not until a seminal paper in 1965 that Penrose proved that black holes can really form — describing them in detail and stating that, at their centre, there is a singularity where time and space cease to exist.
Because they suck in light, black holes — often formed when a star is dying where a large amount of matter is squeezed into a tiny space — are invisible, except with special telescopes.
Genzel and Ghez have been looking through those special telescopes for decades, said Varun Bhalerao, assistant professor at IIT-Bombay’s department of physics. They’ve studied images of star positions in the Milky Way year after year and eventually realised those stars were orbiting something in the centre of our galaxy,” he said.
By space standards, that orbit is small, but still has a mass many million times the sun. “The only available explanation is that it is a black hole.”
It’s not close enough to suck us in, assured GC Anupama, president of the Astronomical Society of India.
Penrose’s work, on the other hand, is hard for anyone to see as boring. His theories have influenced the fields as varied as quantum cosmology, the science of consciousness and artificial intelligence. His interests in geometry, the way non-overlapping flat shapes form finite and infinite symmetries, have resulted in mathematical experiments named after him: Penrose tiling. Most famous, perhaps, is his Penrose stairs — with four landings that loop into each other so the steps rise higher but the staircase appears to stay on the same level. “He’s one of our greatest mathematicians,” said Chitre.