The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 accorded for the discovery of the black holes

Conceptual image of a black hole made by Laurențiu Caramete

This year, the Noble Prize in Physics, announced in October, has been divided between Roger Penrose, from University of Oxford, UK, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and Reinhard Genzel, from Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik, Germany, along with Andrea Ghez, from University of California, USA, “for the discovery of a supermassive object, compact in the center of our galaxy”, conform the official press release.

The three laureates that share this years’ Nobel Prize in Physics have contributed to the discovery of the most exotic objects in the Universe, black holes.

In 1965, 10 years after the death of Albert Einstein, Roger Penrose has managed to prove the existence and describe in detail the formation and properties of black holes, starting from the theory of relativity and using revolutionary mathematical methods. Thus, Penrose proved that these super-massive objects that capture everything that falls inside them, and around which the classic laws of physics no longer apply, are a direct consequence to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The article in which Roger Penrose has published these results it is still considered today as being the second most important contribution to the theory of relativity after the works of Einstein.

Twenty-five years later, in 1990, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez led two teams of astronomers that have studied, independently from one another, the center of our galaxy, more exactly the region named Sagittarius A*. The two teams observed closely the unusual behavior of nearby stars in that region of the Milky Way and deducted that these were in the vicinity of a supermassive compact object, having a mass of a couple millions times greater than our Sun and occupying a region equivalent to about the size of our Solar System. So far, the only object whose characteristics can explain the topology and dynamics of this region is a supermassive black hole.

The discovery of this object is important not only because it proves Einstein’s theory and Penrose’s calculations, but also because in order to make these observations, the limits of the technology and data processing tools existing at that moment have been pushed further, leading to progress in observational astrophysics.

The Institute of Space Science (ISS) is actively doing research in astrophysics in general, and on massive and supermassive black holes in particular, with contributions such as new concepts and theories about black holes, catalogs containing the mass of black holes and simulations of their formation, growth and evolution. ISS is involved in the space research field also, for instance, through the participation in the LISA space mission, designed and built by the European Space Agency (ESA), mission that aims to study gravitational wave signals coming from the collision of massive objects, including black holes, and to identify the mechanisms of the formation and evolution of black holes, from their birth until now. The Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) continuously supports the Romanian contributions to space research, including the LISA mission, in which our country is being anchored in pioneering research of the study of gravitational waves in space.

Contact person: dr. Laurențiu Caramete <lcaramete[at]spacescience[dot]ro>

 

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