Dec 28, 2020

Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez Wins 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics for Supermassive Black Hole Discovery

Dr. Andrea Ghez was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics this week for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy! The astrophysicist, who is the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics at UCLA, shares half of the prize with Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley; the other half recognizes Roger Penrose, a professor at the University of Oxford who proved that black holes must be a physical reality. Ghez was delighted to receive the award, particularly because she is only the fourth woman in history to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics. "I'm thrilled to receive the prize and I take very seriously the responsibility associated with being... the fourth woman to win," Ghez said after the announcement. "[And] I think today I feel more passionate about the teaching side of my job than I have ever. Because it's so important to convince the younger generation that their ability to question, and their ability to think, is just crucial to the future of the world."Born in New York City in 1965, Ghez says the moon landings inspired her childhood dream of becoming the first female astronaut, helping to pique her interest in science. She was further encouraged by Judith Keane, her chemistry teacher in high school and the only female science teacher she had in high school or college. Ghez started her college career majoring in mathematics but changed to physics because, she says, "I love the research process. First you have to figure out what might be an interesting question to ask given what is currently known and possible to do.... While this can be a struggle because things are not totally ironed out, you get to see things in a way that have never been seen before."

After completing her bachelor's degree at MIT in 1987 and her PhD at the California Institute of Technology in 1992, she helped advance a technology called adaptive optics, which improves the performance of high-powered telescopes by reducing the distorting effect of the Earth's atmosphere and interstellar dust. This correction allows astronomers and astrophysicists to better study the behavior of distant objects in the universe. Working with the W.M. Keck Telescope in Hawaii, she and her team studied the orbits of stars near the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Ghez and her team determined that their paths were only possible if a supermassive black hole was present in the Galactic Center, something that had long been theorized but had not been proven before Ghez's study. "Stretching the limits of technology, they refined new techniques... building unique instruments and committing themselves to long-term research," the Nobel Prize committee wrote in a press release announcing the awards. "[This] pioneering work has given us the most convincing evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way."

Ghez is the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, after Marie Skłodowska Curie, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and Donna Strickland. It's a field which is notoriously unwelcoming to women. A few months before Strickland won the Nobel in 2018, Wikipedia rejected a draft article about her arguing that her "references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article" — even though Gérard Mourou, her partner in her prize-winning research, had been the subject of a Wikipedia page for over ten years. The representation of women in physics continues to be the lowest among all the physical sciences, with women earning approximately 19% of physics degrees at both the bachelor's and doctorate levels.

Ghez hopes that her win will be another example that encourages girls and women to enter STEM fields — particularly her area of expertise, which she calls "extreme astrophysics," that is full of mysteries to be explored. "[Einstein's] theory [of general relativity] is definitely showing vulnerability," she says. "[A]t some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.... I hope I can inspire other young women in the field. It's a field that has so many pleasures, and if you are passionate about the science, there's so much that can be done."

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