Where Time Ends: 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics Recognizes Revolutionary Black Hole Discoveries

IAS Theoretical and Observational Astrophysicists Applaud Laureates

“The most spectacular element of the Penrose calculations is that he showed that if you are close enough to a black hole, time ends. It is the mirror image of the Big Bang.”

Robbert Dijkgraaf, IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 7, 2020)

On October 6, 2020, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarding one-half to Roger Penrose, former IAS Visitor in the School of Mathematics, and one-half jointly to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez.

Penrose was cited by the Nobel committee for “the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” Genzel and Ghez were recognized for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.”

These landmark findings collectively launched a new era of black hole research. This year also marks the first time that a Nobel Prize has been awarded for theoretical results based on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, despite its formulation more than a hundred years ago in 1915.

Scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study continue to drive contemporary understanding of black holes from both theoretical and observational perspectives, carrying forth the legacy of Einstein, a founding Professor of IAS.

The following quotes are from Faculty and Members in the School of Natural Sciences in recognition of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics:

“In the 1960s, Roger Penrose made fundamental contributions to the understanding of classical General Relativity. Arguably, he contributed more to the understanding of classical General Relativity than anyone since Einstein. Penrose’s ideas, with later elaborations by Stephen Hawking and others, led to the qualitative understanding that we have today of gravitational collapse and the formation of a black hole.”

Edward Witten, Charles Simonyi Professor

“Paradoxically, black holes are both the simplest and the most exotic objects in the physical universe. For decades, they were regarded by most physicists as a fascinating concept, but one that was inaccessible to the normal processes of experiment and observation that are central to scientific progress. The award of the Nobel Prize to Penrose, Genzel, and Ghez confirms that this view is obsolete. Genzel and Ghez were recognized for observational work over almost three decades that established beyond reasonable doubt that a black hole of four million times the mass of the sun resides at the center of the Milky Way, and thereby confirmed Penrose's theoretical work showing that black holes are an inevitable prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity.”

Scott Tremaine, Professor Emeritus

“Roger Penrose has shown how black holes form under general conditions. More importantly, in my view, he has also shown that their interior contains a singularity, a region where our notions of spacetime fail. So, he has shown that Einstein's theory is incomplete.”

Juan Maldacena, Carl P. Feinberg Professor

“It was very exciting to read that Penrose, Genzel, and Ghez have been awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on black holes. This is only the second Nobel for black hole research, and Penrose's prize is the first for strictly theoretical work on black holes (the 2017 prize recognized the LIGO experiment). I think it is wonderful that Penrose became the first person to win the Nobel for strictly theoretical work on black holes, as he is really one of the grandfathers of the whole subject. It is too bad Stephen Hawking isn't here to enjoy this, as a good portion of the research recognized today (the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems) was joint work between Penrose and Hawking.”

Robert Penna, Member, School of Natural Sciences
Funding provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Sivian Fund

“This is a very timely and extremely deserved recognition of 25+ years of heroic efforts of studying the galactic center region and in particular precision tracking of stars orbiting the black hole. It is important to remember that the confirmation of the very fact that there is indeed a black hole in the center of our galaxy, and not some other object, came from the works of Andrea Ghez’s and Reinhard Genzel’s groups. By now we take the presence of the black hole in the center of Milky Way’s galaxy for granted.”

Lena Murchikova, Member, School of Natural Sciences
Corning Glass Works Foundation Fellow

“Roger Penrose’s groundbreaking result on the inevitability of black holes continues to have a resounding impact on the field 55 years later, with strikingly deep implications for quantum gravity. It is a pleasant surprise that what can be considered a theoretical result, and which underpins much of current theoretical physics, has won the Nobel.”

Ahmed Almheiri, Long-term Member, School of Natural Sciences

“The striking features of black holes illustrate the beauty and complexity of general relativity, and anyone who has thought deeply about the subject has to be delighted with this announcement. It’s a wonderful time to be studying black holes, and I think we can look forward to many exciting results in the coming years.”

Daniel Kapec, Member, School of Natural Sciences
Funding provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Adler Family Fund

“Black holes are mysterious and fascinating objects. While much can be learned about black holes from the outside, their interiors remain beyond experimental observation. These hidden aspects, which can only be analyzed theoretically, will have profound implications on our understanding of the universe. I am happy to see such a groundbreaking result recognized with the Nobel Prize, and look forward to the motivation this will bring to the overall field of black hole research and to aspiring theorists.”

Ying Zhao, Member, School of Natural Sciences
Funding provided by the Simons Foundation


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