Penrose, of the University of Oxford, received half 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.
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Genzel, who is both at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of California, Berkeley and Ghez, University of California, Los Angeles, received the second half of the award for discovering a “compact supermassive object. At the center of our galaxy. This object was also a black hole, albeit a giant one.
The award celebrates what the Nobel Committee has called “one of the most exotic objects in the universe” and those which “still pose many questions that demand answers and motivate future research”.
Black holes are at the center of every galaxy, and the smallest are dotted around the universe. Their existence is mind-blowing, taking what people experience every day on Earth – light and time – and distorting them in ways that seem unreal.
“Black holes, because they’re so hard to understand, are what make them so attractive,” Ghez told The Associated Press Tuesday morning. “I really see science as a big giant puzzle.”
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Ghez, 55, went to college majoring in mathematics because the concept of infinity fascinated her. Because time slows down and even stops in these black holes, Ghez says she always studies infinity in some way.
“You get this mixture 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, relying heavily on Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
“Einstein himself did not believe that black holes really exist, these super-heavy monsters that capture everything that enters them,” said the Nobel Committee. “Nothing can escape, not even light. “
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Martin Rees, the British astronomer royal, noted that Penrose sparked a “renaissance” in the study of relativity in the 1960s and that, along with a young Stephen Hawking, he helped solidify the evidence for the Big Bang and black holes.
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“Penrose and Hawking are the two people who have done more than anyone since Einstein to expand our knowledge of gravity,” Rees said. “Unfortunately, this award has been too late for Hawking to share the credit.”
Hawking passed away in 2018, and Nobel Prizes are only awarded to the living.
In the 1990s, Genzel and Ghez, leading separate groups of astronomers, made their way to the dust-covered center of our Milky Way galaxy, a region called Sagittarius A (asterisk), where something of strange was happening.
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The two teams discovered that there was “an extremely heavy and invisible object which shoots at the jumble of stars, causing them to rush at breakneck speeds,” according to the committee.
It was a black hole. Not just an ordinary black hole, but a supermassive hole, 4 million times the mass of our sun.
The first image obtained by Ghez dates back to 1995, using the Keck telescope in Hawaii which had just been put online. A year later, another image seemed to indicate that the stars near the center of the Milky Way were revolving around 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 used an array of telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.
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“Their rivalry has elevated them to greater scientific heights,” said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb.
Speaking after the award was announced, Genzel, 68, said the time may have come to put the competition aside.
“We have to see if we will continue with this or if now is the time, since we have both been crowned, that we work together,” he said, noting the considerable funding required to build instruments always. bigger and better. it could one day refute Einstein’s theory and open up a new field of physics.
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Ghez is the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, after Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.
“I hope I can inspire other young women in the field. It is an area that has so many pleasures. And if you are passionate about science, there is so much to do, ”said Ghez.
It is common for several scientists who have worked in related fields to share the prize. Last year’s award went to Canadian-born cosmologist James Peebles for his theoretical work on the first moments after the Big Bang and to Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for discovering a planet outside our solar system. .
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This prestigious award is accompanied by a gold medal and a cash prize of 10 million crowns (over 1.1 million dollars), thanks to a bequest left 124 years ago by the creator of the prize, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The amount was recently increased to take inflation into account.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and to British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the hepatitis C virus which ravages the liver.
The other awards, which will be announced in the coming days, are intended for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland, Jordans from Berlin. AP science editor Christina Larson in Washington contributed to this report.
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