Nobel Prize Winner Worked Years On Mauna Kea's Keck Telescope

Oct 7, 2020

UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, who worked long years on the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, was among three scientists named winners of the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday.

Ghez and Reinhard Genzel of Germany provided conclusive evidence of the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. 

 

Roger Penrose of Britain was also recognized for his theoretical work showing black holes were the consequence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

 

Ghez is only the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

 

“Black holes, because they are so hard to understand, is what makes them so appealing,’’ Ghez, 55, told the Associated Press after winning the prize. “I really think of science as a big, giant puzzle.”

While the three scientists showed the existence of black holes, it wasn't until last year that people could see one for themselves when another science team — including Hawaii scientists —captured the first and only optical image of one.

It looks like a flaming doughnut from hell but is in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth.

“We couldn’t be more elated for Andrea, who has devoted the entirety of her career to this research — over 25 years — all done at Keck Observatory,” Hilton Lewis, director of the observatory, said in a news release.

Genzel, 68, and Ghez won because “they showed that black holes are not just theory — they're real, they're here, and there's a monster-size black hole in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way," said Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist and mathematician at Columbia University.

In the 1990s, Genzel and Ghez, leading separate groups of astronomers, trained their sights on the dust-covered center of our Milky Way galaxy, a region called Sagittarius A(asterisk), where something strange was going on. It was “an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds,” according to the Nobel 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 center 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 Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb.

Unlike with other achievements honored with Nobels, there is no practical application for these discoveries.

“Is there a practical application to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony?" Columbia's Greene asked. "But its existence, this type of spectacular knowledge, is part of what gives life meaning.”

The Nobel comes with a gold medal and 10 million kronor (more than $1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize's creator, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.