Reinhard Genzel: 2020 - Physics


Year & Category

2020 Nobel Prize in Physics (jointly with the American Andrea Ghez; they shared the divided Prize with the Briton Roger Penrose, who was honoured “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”)

Prize motivation

“For the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”

At the time of the award he worked at

Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany
University of California, Berkeley, USA

About his research

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 has paid tribute to those who have shed light on the “Milky Way’s darkest secret”. Reinhard Genzel has illuminated the phenomenon of black holes. Roger Penrose had already proven in 1965 that black holes are not merely theory, but can actually form as a consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Nonetheless, they are virtually unimaginable places that cannot be seen yet can devour even entire stars with their enormous pull. Reinhard Genzel has provided – along with Andrea Ghez, who shares the prize with him and Roger Penrose – the most convincing evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way.

Gigantic mass in the galaxy

To observe the centre of our galaxy, Genzel and his team used the Very Large Telescope instruments at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) that were built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and scan the sky using infrared light. However, the researchers had to come up with even more sophisticated technology, using adaptive optics and speckle interferometry to compensate for atmospheric turbulence and the confusing positional distortions that this creates when looking at the sky. They were able to calculate the speed of stars in the vicinity of the black hole with such precision that they could determine its mass with a high degree of accuracy as being roughly 4.31 million solar masses.

No matter how inconceivable the dimensions of Genzel’s discoveries may be, they are playing an instrumental part in refining our view of our universe, as well as of gravity, space and time. The researcher will also find the ideal conditions for future highly-precise observations at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics: thanks to his cooperation with high-profile international colleagues and to the instruments developed at the institute for observatories on Earth, in the air and in space.

Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics