2020 Nobel Prize in Physics – Black holes

I had intended to post this much ealier on, and certainly closer to the actual announcement of the Nobel Prizes in early October. It has however been a very busy period. Better late than never, right?

I was very pleased to see that the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics were a group that combined the observational with the theoretical. Sir Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez are the recipients of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. Penrose receives half the 10 million Swedish krona while Ghez and Genzel will share the other half.

Penrose’s work has taken the concept of black holes from the realm of speculation to a sound theoretical idea underpinning modern astrophysics. With the use of topology and general relativity, Penrose has provided us with an explanation to the collapse of matter due to gravity leading to the singularity at the centre of a black hole.

A few decades after the 1960’s work from Penrose we have Genzel and Ghez whose independent work using adaptive optics and speckle imaging enabled them to analyse the motion of stars tightly orbiting Sagittarius A*. Their work led to the conclusion that the only explanation for the radio source at the centre of the Milky Way’s was a black hole.

Ghez is the fourth woman to be named a Nobel physics laureate, after Donna Strickland (2018), Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963), and Marie Curie (1903).

From an Oddity to an Observation

In 1916 Karl Schwarzwild described a solution to Einstein’s field equation for the curved spacetime around a mass of radius r. Some terms in the solution either diverged or vanished for r=\frac{2GM}{c} or r=0. A couple of decades later, Oppenheimer and his student Hartland Snyder realised that the former value corresponded to the radius within which light, under the influence of gravity, would no longer be able to reach outside observers – the so called event horizon. Their work would need more than mathematical assumptions to be accepted.

By 1964 Penrose came up with topological picture of the gravitational collapse described and crucially doing so without the assumptions made by Oppenheimer and Snyder. His work required instead the idea of a trapped surface. In other words a 2D surface in which all light orthogonal to it converges. Penrose’s work showed that inside the event horizon, the radial direction becomes time-like. It is impossible to reverse out of the black hole and the implication is that all matter ends up at the singularity. Penrose’s research established black holes as plausible explanation for objets such s quasars and other active galactic nuclei.

Closer to Home

Although our own galaxy is by no means spewing energy like your average quasar, it still emits X-rays and other radio signals. Could it be that there is a black hole-like object at the heart of the Milky Way? This was a question that Genzel and Ghez would come to answer in time.

With the use of infrared (IR) spectroscopy, studies of gas clouds near the galactic centre showed rising velocities with decreasing distances to the centre, suggesting the presence of a massive, compact source of gravitation. These studies in the 1980s were not definitive but provided a tantalising possibility.

In the mid 1990s, both Genzel and Ghez set out to obtain better evidence with the help of large telescopes operating in the near-IR to detect photons escaping the galactic center. Genzel and colleagues began observing from Chile, whereas Ghez and her team from Hawaii.

Their independent development of speckle imaging, a technique that corrects for the distortions caused by Earth’s atmosphere enabled them to make the crucial observations. The technique improves the images by stacking a series of exposures, bringing the smeared light of individual stars into alignment. In 1997, both groups published their measurements stars movements strongly favouring the black hole explanation.

Further to that work, the use of adaptive optics by both laureates not only improved the resolutions obtained, but also provided the possibility of carrying out spectroscopic analyses which enabled them to get velocities in 3D and therefore obtain precise orbits.

The “star” object in this saga is the so-called S0-2 (Ghez’s group) or S2 (Genzel’s group) star. It approaches within about 17 light-hours of Sagittarius A* every 16 years in a highly elliptical orbit.

Congratulations to Ghez and Genzel, and Penrose.

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