The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 was divided, one half awarded to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”, the other half jointly to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”
Roger Penrose used ingenious mathematical methods in his proof that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein did not himself believe that black holes really exist, these super-heavyweight monsters that capture everything that enters them. Nothing can escape, not even light.
In January 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Roger Penrose proved that black holes really can form and described them in detail; at their heart, black holes hide a singularity in which all the known laws of nature cease. His groundbreaking article is still regarded as the most important contribution to the general theory of relativity since Einstein.
Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez each lead a group of astronomers that, since the early 1990s, has focused on a region called Sagittarius A* at the center of our galaxy. The orbits of the brightest stars closest to the middle of the Milky Way have been mapped with increasing precision. The measurements of these two groups agree, with both finding an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds. Around four million solar masses are packed together in a region no larger than our solar system.
Using the world’s largest telescopes, Genzel and Ghez developed methods to see through the huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust to the center of the Milky Way. Stretching the limits of technology, they refined new techniques to compensate for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, building unique instruments and committing themselves to long-term research. Their pioneering work has given us the most convincing evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.