Nobel Prize for physics awarded to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez

LONDON — Three scientists have won the Nobel Prize in physics for groundbreaking research into black holes, the spacetime phenomena that have long consumed the imagination of both scientists and fiction writers.

Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez’s work has helped reveal “the darkest secrets of the universe,” Secretary General Göran K. Hansson for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said when announcing the winners Tuesday.

British mathematical physicist Penrose of the University of Oxford has been honored “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity,” the prize committee said.

Building on Nobel laureate Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Penrose developed “ingenious” mathematical methods to prove that black holes are a direct consequence of the scientific theory, the committee said.

American astronomer Ghez, the fourth woman to ever win the prize in physics, and German astrophysicist Genzel were jointly awarded “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy,” the committee said.

“I hope I can inspire other young women into the field,” Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the news conference by phone.

Genzel is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ghez and Genzel developed methods using the world’s largest telescopes to see through clouds of interstellar gas and dust in our galaxy to discover an invisible and extremely heavy object governing the orbits of stars. Their discoveries in the 1990s was evidence of a supermassive black hole — 4 million times the mass of our sun — at the center of the Milky Way.

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Scientists have since discovered that all galaxies have supermassive black holes.

“The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects,” David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in a statement.

“But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole,” he added.

The prestigious prize was established by the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel who dictated in his will that it would honor “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”

The physics prize has been awarded 114 times to 215 individuals between 1901 and 2020. Last year, it was awarded to a Canadian American cosmologist and two Swiss scientists for exploring the evolution of the universe and discovering a new kind of planet outside our solar system that orbits a sunlike star.

Winners are given a Nobel diploma and medal, and share the prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (more than $1.1 million).

Prizes in chemistry, literature, peace and economics will be announced over the next week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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