2020 Nobel Prize in Physics is out of this world

Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez were announced as this year's winners for their work on black holes
06 October 2020
by Karen Thomas
2020 Nobel Prize in Physics winners

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics celebrates what the Nobel Committee calls "one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe." Black holes are the star of this year's physics Nobel Prize: one half is awarded to mathematical physicist Roger Penrose "for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity," and the other half goes jointly to astrophysicists Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez "for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy."

Penrose, a professor emeritus at the University of Oxford, used "ingenious mathematical methods," according to the academy, to prove that black holes were a direct consequence of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Although Penrose detailed his studies in 1965, it wasn't until the 1990s that Genzel and Ghez, each then leading their own astronomy teams, developed methods, including adaptive optics and infrared imaging, to see past huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust and into the center of the Milky Way.

Genzel is currently the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley; Ghez is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ghez is the fourth woman to be awarded 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 into the field," Ghez said during the Nobel press conference. "It's a field that has so many pleasures, and if you are passionate about the science, there's so much that can be done."

This is a consecutive win for the astronomy community as a whole: Last year's Nobel Prize in Physics 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.

"Black holes have long held a particular fascinating in the human imagination and we are deepening our understanding of them all the time" notes SPIE CEO Kent Rochford. "Using the science of adaptive optics — as well as some of the world's largest telescopes — Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel have built on Roger Penrose's earlier theoretical work to advance our understanding of these phenomena. At SPIE, we are particularly excited that members of our astro community are honored with this year's physics Nobel and look forward to both Professor Ghez's and Professor Genzel's current research being presented at this year's SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation."

SPIE has made the publications from this year's winners in the SPIE Digital Library open access.

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