Andrea Ghez won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for her groundbreaking research into black holes.
Ghez, a professor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. She used the telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii — the largest telescopes in the world — to visualize the black hole.
“The larger your telescope is, the finer the detail you should be able to see, and my group has worked on techniques for getting to that theoretical limit — getting to the sharpest images that we can obtain — and doing so allows us to see the heart of our galaxy,” she says.
She describes a black hole as “a region of space where the pull of gravity is so intense that nothing can escape it, not even light.”
Ghez shares the prize with Reinhard Genzel of the University of California, Berkeley. The other half of the prize was awarded to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford for demonstrating that Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes.
With so few women in the field, Ghez says she takes being a role model for young women physicists as a serious responsibility. She encourages aspiring women physicists and young girls passionate about science to “go for it.”
On how Ghez found the black hole
“My work used the Keck telescopes, which are out in Hawaii, and it's the largest telescope in the world, and the reason that's important is that with large telescopes, the larger your telescope is, the finer the detail you should be able to see, and my group has worked on techniques for getting to that theoretical limit — getting to the sharpest images that we can obtain — and doing so allows us to see the heart of our galaxy.
“And what we wanted to know is: Is there a supermassive black hole there? And so by taking these incredibly sharp images, we were able to discover stars at the heart of the galaxy and track the motion of these stars. And the motions of the stars contain the answer to what resides there. And these stars move so incredibly fast that you know that there's a lot of mass confined within a small volume, which is the demonstration of a supermassive black hole.”
On the big questions she’s still hoping to answer about black holes
“Oh, gosh, there are so many. So, from the physics side, what one really wants to understand is: How does gravity work near a supermassive black hole? Because black holes in a sentence represent the breakdown of our understanding of physics. We don't know how to make the theory of gravity. Einstein's theory of general relativity worked together with the theory of quantum mechanics, which is the study of things that are very small. So black holes have both massive gravity or lots of gravity and are very small objects. That's the physics side of the house, and then astrophysically, what we want to understand is the role that these supermassive black holes play in the formation and evolution of galaxies, which are the building blocks of the universe.”
On when she first became interested in physics and science
“You know, hindsight is 20/20. I think when I was young, I was certainly inspired by the early moon landings. That was my first introduction to ... thinking about the universe. I was quite young — I was four when we first landed on the moon. But that, if I think back, was the early inspiration that got me thinking about, you know, this immense universe, realizing how small and insignificant we were. But I wouldn't say that I was somebody who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to go into this field, and in fact, I went to college thinking I wanted to be a math major. So I would say the common theme for me growing up was that I always loved puzzles and figuring things out. I loved logic puzzles. And today I really think of my research as one giant puzzle and thinking of technology as a way of figuring out the next piece of the complex puzzles that we have.”
On getting the phone call announcing her Nobel win
“I was fast asleep. So, you know, the first thing is to realize the phone is ringing and then the second thought is, 'Oh, no. Who's sick?' And then, you know, sort of disbelief and then being thrilled. ... I'm still having a hard time completely wrapping my head around it. But I'm really delighted.”
This segment aired on October 6, 2020.