Three scientists won this year's Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday for advancing our understanding of black holes, all-consuming monsters lurking in the darkest parts of the universe.
Briton Roger Penrose received half of this year's prize "for the discovery that the formation of black holes is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity," the Nobel Committee said.
The prize celebrates "one of the most exotic objects in the universe," the black holes that have become a staple of science fact and science fiction, and where time seems to stand still, according to the committee.
Black holes are probably the most mysterious and powerful objects in astronomy. They are at the center of every galaxy, and smaller galaxies are dotted around the universe. Nothing, not even light, can escape their incredible gravitation. They are the ultimate dead-end of the cosmic.
"Black holes, because they're so hard to understand, are what makes them so attractive," Ghez said Tuesday morning to the Associated Press. "I really think of science as a big, gigantic puzzle."
Penrose proved with the mathematics that the formation of black holes as possible, largely based on Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.
"Einstein himself did not believe that black holes really exist, these super-heavy monsters that capture everything that comes into them," the committee said. "Nothing can escape, no light at all."
Martin Rees, the British royal astronomer, noted that Penrose triggered a "renaissance" in the study of relativity in the 1960s and that he, along with a young Stephen Hawking, helped to establish evidence of the Big Bang and the black holes.
"Penrose and Hawking are the two individuals who have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity," said Rees. "Unfortunately, this award was too late to allow Hawking to share the credit."
Hawking died in 2018, and only living scientists receive Nobel Prizes.
It wasn't until the 1990s that Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, each leading a group of astronomers, had trained their sights on the dust-covered center of our Milky Way galaxy, a region called Sagittarius A *, where something strange was going on.
They both found that there was an "extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds."
It was a black hole in it. Not just a normal black hole, but a supermassive black hole, 4 million times the mass of our sun.
Scientists now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes.
In 2019, scientists were given the first optical image of a black hole, and Ghez, who was not involved, praised the discovery.
"Today we accept that these objects are critical to the building blocks of the universe," Ghez told an audience at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences by phone shortly after the announcement.
Ghez is the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, after Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and Donna Strickland in 2018.
"I hope I can inspire other young women in the field. It's a field with so many pleasures. And if you're passionate about science, there's so much you can do, "Ghez said.
The Nobel Committee said that black holes "still raise many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research."
It is common for a number of scientists working in related fields to share the prize. Last year's award went to Canadian-born cosmologist James Peebles for theoretical work on the early days of the Big Bang and to Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for discovering a planet outside our solar system.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (more than $1.1 million), with the permission of the winner of the prize, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, 124 years ago. The amount has recently been increased in order to adjust for inflation.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the Physiology and Medicine Award to the Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and the British-born scientist Michael Houghton for the discovery of the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.
The other awards to be announced in the coming days are for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace, and economics.