This year’s prize was about the darkest secrets of the universe

For the discoveries relating to the elusive black holes, Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany, and Andrea Ghez of the US clinches the Nobel Prize for Physics.

At a ceremony on Tuesday in Stockholm, Goran K Hansson, secretary to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that this year’s prize was about the darkest secrets of the universe. Penrose showed that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes. Genzel and Andrea Ghez discovered that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the centre of our galaxy; a supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.

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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.

Ten years after Einstein’s death, 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.

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Genzel and Ghez each lead a group of astronomers that, since the early 1990s, has focused on a region called Sagittarius A* at the centre 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, the duo developed methods to see through the huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust to the centre 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 centre of the Milky Way.

Last year the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Canadian-born cosmologist James Peebles, for his theoretical work on the first moments after the Big Bang, and to Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for their discovery of a planet outside of our solar system.

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