Three scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for advancing our understanding of black holes, the all-consuming monsters that lurk in the darkest parts of the universe and still confound astronomers.
Briton Roger Penrose, German Reinhard Genzel and American Andrea Ghez explained to the world these dead ends of the cosmos that devour light and even time. Staples of both science fact and fiction, black holes are still not completely understood, but they are deeply connected, somehow, to the creation of galaxies, where the stars and life exist.
Penrose, of the University of Oxford, received half of this year’s prize for discovering that Albert Einstein’s famous general theory of relativity predicts the formation of black holes, the Nobel Committee said.
Genzel, who is at both the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of California, Berkeley, and Ghez, of the University of California, Los Angeles, received the second half of the prize for discovering a “supermassive compact object” at the centre of our galaxy. That object was also a black hole, albeit a giant one.
The prize celebrates what the Nobel Committee called “one of the most exotic objects in the universe” and ones that “still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research.”
Black holes are at the centre of every galaxy, and smaller ones are dotted around the universe. Just their existence is mind-bending, taking what people experience every day on Earth _ light and time _ and warping them in such a way that seems unreal.
“Black holes, because they are so hard to understand, is what makes them so appealing,” Ghez told The Associated Press on Tuesday morning. “I really think of science as a big, giant puzzle.”
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Ghez, 55, went to college as a math major because the concept of infinity fascinated her. Because time slows and even stops in these black holes, Ghez said she is still studying infinity in a way.
“You get this mixing of space and time,” Ghez said, adding that’s what makes black holes so hard to understand.
Penrose, 89, proved with mathematics that the formation of black holes was possible, based heavily on Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
“Einstein did not himself believe that black holes really exist, these super-heavyweight monsters that capture everything that enters them,” the Nobel Committee said. “Nothing can escape, not even light.”
Martin Rees, the British astronomer royal, noted that Penrose triggered a “renaissance” in the study of relativity in the 1960s, and that, together with a young Stephen Hawking, he helped firm up evidence for the Big Bang and black holes.
“Penrose and Hawking are the two individuals who have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity,” Rees said. “Sadly, this award was too much delayed to allow Hawking to share the credit.”
Hawking died in 2018, and Nobel prizes are only awarded to the living.
In the 1990s, Genzel and Ghez, leading separate groups of astronomers, trained their sights on the dust-covered centre of our Milky Way galaxy, a region called Sagittarius A (asterisk), where something strange was going on.
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Both teams found that there was “an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds,” according to the committee.
It was a black hole. Not just an ordinary black hole, but a supermassive one, 4 million times the mass of our sun.
The first image Ghez got was in 1995, using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii that had just gone online. A year later, another image seemed to indicate that the stars near the centre of the Milky Way were circling something. A third image led Ghez and Genzel to think they were really on to something.
A fierce competition developed between Ghez and Genzel, whose team was using an array of telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.
“Their rivalry elevated them to greater scientific heights,” said said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb.
Speaking after the award was announced, Genzel, 68, said the time may have come to set competition aside.
“We need to see whether we’re going to continue with this or whether it’s now time, since we’ve both been crowned, for us to work together,” he said, noting the vast funding required to built ever bigger and better instruments that might one day disprove Einstein’s theory and open up a new realm of physics.
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Ghez is the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, after Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and Donna Strickland in 2018.
“I hope I can inspire other young women into the field. It’s a field that has so many pleasures. And if you’re passionate about the science, there’s so much that can be done,” Ghez said.
It is common for several scientists who worked in related fields to share the prize. Last year’s prize went to Canadian-born cosmologist James Peebles for theoretical work about the early moments after the Big Bang, and 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 krona (more than $1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The amount was increased recently to adjust for inflation.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.
The other prizes, to be announced in the coming days, are for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland, Jordans from Berlin. AP Science Writer Christina Larson in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2020 The Canadian Press
Lunar base: How NASA's moon water discovery could support human habitats – Inverse
This week, NASA announced a discovery that could make a permanent lunar base reality.
On Monday, agency researchers announced they had detected abundant water on the Moon’s surface, trapped in small icy pockets throughout the lunar soil. The signals were detected by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, also known as SOFIA. Taken together, the water is equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle per cubic meter of lunar soil, they estimate.
They also found the first evidence that water exists on the sunlit areas of the Moon, not just at the poles.
Essentially, the discovery suggests water may be far more accessible to humans than previously thought, dramatically expanding the areas of the Moon where humans might be able to establish a presence — and whether they can go even further into space.
Private companies like SpaceX and government agencies like NASA, as well as others in China and Europe, have all made clear they plan to establish lunar bases. But if they are to work, they need to make the most of what the local environment has to offer.
Basically, the more resources you can find and use once you are in space, the less you have to send up at launch.
“Water is a precious resource in space,” Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director, said during the agency’s press conference. “We want to know everything we can about water on the Moon.”
Location, location, location — One of the key impacts of this discovery on these plans is the fact that it broadens where on the Moon humans can set up shop for three key reasons.
First, astronauts would be able to drink the water, albeit after treating it.
Second, water is not just for drinking. Water can be converted into oxygen for astronauts, Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, explained Monday.
Third, it can also be used to create fuel.
Fuel is one of the major challenges for a Moon base, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed in October 2019. The company’s Starship is designed to use liquid oxygen and methane, chemicals that astronauts can generate from carbon dioxide and water. SpaceX wants to build a fueling station on Mars that would utilize that planet’s stores. Musk noted at the time that the Moon’s lack of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen is a “big challenge” for refueling the Starship on the Moon. This news suggests it could make a perfect pit stop, too.
Back to the Moon, 2024 — NASA chose SpaceX’s Starship in April, along with two other pitches, as a potential solution for landing humans on the Moon in 2024. SpaceX has also detailed plans on using Starship rockets to serve as the basis for a “Moon Base Alpha.”
NASA’s crewed Moon mission forms part of the Artemis program. It involves establishing a Lunar Gateway — essentially a spaceport which would orbit around the Moon to support crewed missions. It also involves establishing an Artemis Base Camp near the South Pole, which would initially host one or two astronauts for around four months.
“With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence by the end of the decade,” Hertz said. “At the Moon, we will prepare for human exploration of Mars.”
SpaceX and NASA are not the only two interested. The Chinese and European space agencies have also expressed interest in permanent settlements. Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos also said in a 2018 speech that “we must go back to the Moon, and this time to stay.”
But before astronauts start packing their drinking straws, more research needs to be done.
“We know there’s water at the moon, but we don’t know exactly how accessible lunar water is for our future explorers,” Bleacher said. “Knowing where we can find water is a good first step. But we need to know more about the water to understand if and how we can use it for both science and exploration.”
Water, water everywhere – but we might have to wait a bit to drink.
Ah Crap: The Arctic Is Releasing a Ton of New Greenhouse Gas – Futurism
Figuring out when, and to what extent, the Arctic will melt and release greenhouse gases into the air has been a major challenge for environmental scientists. Now it seems like the process is already underway.
A team of Russian and Swedish scientists exploring the Arctic Ocean found that the continental slope near Siberia has already started to give off huge amounts of methane, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, The Guardian reports. The methane, which is leaking into the ocean and the air, is a worrying new data point about the state of the climate.
The scientists, who haven’t yet finished analyzing their data or sent it for review by an academic journal, stressed to The Guardian that they’re still at a very preliminary stage of their research. But their discovery is still ominous. If the Arctic is releasing carbon in mass quantities, it could trigger a feedback loop that worsens climate change and continues to give off even more greenhouse gases.
“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered,” Örjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University told The Guardian. “This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing.”
It will be hard to tell what impact these Arctic greenhouse gases will have on the global environment — but the consensus among experts is that it could be disastrous.
“This is a new page,” Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences told The Guardian. “Potentially they can have serious climate consequences, but we need more study before we can confirm that.”
READ MORE: ‘Sleeping giant’ Arctic methane deposits starting to release, scientists find [The Guardian]
More on the Arctic: This is the Devastating Potential of the Arctic Permafrost Melting
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