17th January 2022

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The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists for their work on black holes, a phenomenon that has caused confusion in science and has also spread to popular culture.

  • Roger Penrose of Great Britain received half the award for his mathematical work in the 1960s that made black holes a theoretically acceptable possibility.
  • The other half is shared by Reinhard Genzel from Germany and Andrea Ghez from the United States for their separate experimental work from the 1990s that followed a “supermassive”.
  • A black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy Ms. Ghez is only the fourth woman in history to win a Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • This is a timely victory, given the continued pressure for more women in STEM fields. Penrose leads an element of modern history to victory. Her cutting-edge mathematical work proved that black holes were the end point of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
  • Einstein herself had not accepted that there was a point at which the laws of physics ceased to apply, the singularity at the center of a black hole, which pointed to her own theory.
  • Penrose worked closely with another famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018. It stands to reason that if Hawking were alive now, he would have shared the Nobel with Penrose.
  • It is this mix of an exotic theme, gender roles, and scientific history that makes this story important.

What are black holes?

  • A black hole forms when stars collapse and can be defined as a space in the universe with an escape velocity so high that not even light can escape.
  • Escape velocity is the speed at which an object must move to cancel out a planet or the gravitational force of an object. For example, for a spacecraft to leave the Earth’s surface, it must move at a speed of about 40,000 km / h.
  • Since the light cannot be turned off, black holes are invisible and can only be tracked with a space telescope or other special tools. And the reason that light cannot escape is mainly because the gravity inside a black hole is very strong because a lot of matter is compressed into a small space.

What does the laureates’ work on black holes teach us?

Penrose received the award for the discovery “that the formation of a black hole is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”, while Genzel and Ghez received the award for the discovery of a compact supermassive object at the center of our galaxy.

  • Penrose’s work has shown that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein himself did not believe that black holes existed and presented his theory in November 1915, offering a new way of seeing and understanding gravity that shapes the universe “on a larger scale.” Gravity also shapes space and influences the passage of time. It is this gravity that is so large inside a black hole that it can bend space and slow down time.
  • Penrose used Einstein’s theory of general relativity to show that the process of black hole formation is stable. He proved that black holes exist and described them in detail in 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death.
  • Genzel and Ghez, for their part, discovered that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbit of the stars in the center of the Milky Way. This extremely heavy object has a mass equivalent to 4 million solar masses and is packed into an area the size of our solar system.
  • Essentially, their work tells us that at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, lies an invisible supermassive object, for which a black hole provides a reasonable explanation. Physicists have suspected the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy for more than 50 years.
  • To see through the Milky Way, Genzel and Ghez worked on developing methods and used some of the largest telescopes in the world.
  • By looking at the orbits of the stars closest to the center of the Milky Way, physicists believe that the black hole could probably be hidden in Sagitarrius A, a source of radio waves around which all the stars in the Milky Way orbit.
  • In other words, the existence of a black hole in the center of our galaxy is what physicists think attracts a “jumble of stars”, causing them to “run at breakneck speeds.”

Where does black hole research go from here?

  • Although the work carried out by Penrose established that black holes are a “robust” consequence of the theory of relativity and that they form naturally in very crowded regions, thus demonstrating that their formation is a stable process, the theory leaves to apply in the center of the black hole called the singularity – “a limit at which all known laws of nature break.” Essentially, this means that the extent to which the theory of general relativity applies to the structure of black holes requires further examination, and questions remain about the internal structure of black holes.
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