Andrea Ghez, an Aspen Center for Physics member, wins Nobel Prize for work with black holes
Long has it been theorized that the center of the Milky Way Galaxy is home to a supermassive black hole. Now, after decades of exhaustive research, there is finally substantial proof of its existence and Andrea Ghez had a lot to do with finding those answers.
Ghez, an astronomy professor at UCLA and a general member of the Aspen Center for Physics, earlier this month was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work, which she shared with Reinhard Genzel and Roger Penrose. Ghez is only the fourth woman to have ever won the Nobel for physics, first awarded in 1901.
“I’m thrilled that the Nobel committee recognized the work. This has been a long project that has required a tremendous amount of dedication,” Ghez told The Aspen Times last week. “I’m excited going forward because there are a lot of opportunities associated with receiving a prize like this. We have so much more to do, and I’m hoping this will enable us to go forward more boldly.”
Ghez, 55, has long been a familiar name around the Aspen Center for Physics, a nonprofit launched in 1962 that seeks to bring the best minds in the world together for collaboration and innovation. She’s talked at a handful of Aspen events over the years, and like so many, has a soft spot for the small mountain town that has quietly hosted dozens of Nobel laureates over the decades.
Now, because of the award, her standing within the organization will likely be a bit different, as will a lot else.
“Her whole life is now changed,” said Karin Rabe, the Aspen Center for Physics board chair and a former center president, about Ghez winning a Nobel Prize. Rabe is a computational materials physicist at Rutgers. “She’s an amazing person and of course everyone involved with the center is very thrilled and excited for her that her work is being recognized this way.”
The prestigious Nobel Prize for physics, which is awarded annually and comes with a substantial financial payout, was shared among the three scientists this year. Penrose, one of the most established physicists of our time and known for his early work with the late Stephen Hawking, won half of the award. Ghez and Genzel shared the other half “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy,” according to the Nobel Prize’s news release.
Most of Ghez’s work was done at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, where she used a near infrared camera (NIRC) and adaptive optics (AO) to observe Sagittarius A*, the name of what is believed to be the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
“That gives us the best evidence for supermassive black holes, but it also creates a wonderful laboratory for understanding the physics and the astrophysics of black holes,” Ghez said. “It’s right in our backyard and we had the opportunity to study it in far more detail than we can study any other candidate supermassive black hole.”
While Ghez and Genzel found ample proof of the black hole’s existence at the center of the Milky Way — increasing “the evidence by a factor of 10 million,” per Ghez — their research also created more new answers than they maybe had before. The Nobel Prize hardly means an end to their work.
”We’ve discovered an environment around the black hole that is inconsistent with most of the theories for what you should expect around a supermassive black hole,” Ghez said. “In fact, we’ve opened more questions than answers. In a sense, there is so much to do in terms of understanding these unexpected results, including why we see young stars where in fact the theory suggests star formation shouldn’t be able to proceed near a supermassive black hole.”
Ghez’s role with the Aspen Center for Physics is likely to take a more honorary title going forward. While she has been very hands-on in the past, Rabe said her newfound stardom as a Nobel Prize winner will give Ghez a higher standing of sorts within the local organization.
“We try not to make them do too much of the boring work,” Rabe said of Nobel laureates, “but just have them be available for their scientific expertise and side consultation and try to respect the fact there are a lot of demands on their time.”
As far as becoming only the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics, Ghez sees this as nearly as important as the research itself. The first woman to win the award in physics was Marie Curie in 1903 — she also won a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911 — while another woman wouldn’t win the physics prize until Maria Goeppert Mayer shared it in 1963.
The third woman to win was Canada’s Donna Strickland in 2018. She shared the prize with Gerard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin for their work with lasers. Then came Ghez, the second woman to win the Nobel for physics in a three-year span, 57 years after Goeppert Mayer and 117 years after Curie.
“I’m delighted to be part of the social progress that is being made. It’s never as fast as we want it, but it’s great to be part of the change,” Ghez said. “It makes such a big difference for young women to see people who look like them as role models. I’ve for a long time been very interested in encouraging young girls and just general public engagement in science, which is part of why I’ve agreed to do the public talks in Aspen. The best thing you can do is just be visible.”
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