Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three for showing that formation of black holes is predicted by relativity theory

October 6, 2020 • 6:15 am

This morning the Karolinska Institute awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics to two men and a woman—Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez—for work on black holes.  As the press release notes:

Three Laureates share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole. Roger Penrose showed that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez discovered that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the centre of our galaxy. A supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.

Penrose got half the prize, with Genzel and Ghez sharing the other 50%.

My Nobel Prize Contest (see here and here) is already a big flop this year, with nobody guessing even one person from each of the two sets of winners so far. Reader ThyroidPlanet, though, did guess Penrose for physics.

The Chemistry prize will be announced tomorrow, and the Literature prize on Thursday.

Below is a video of this morning’s announcement featuring Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The action begins at 26:15, with the announcement in both Swedish and English. At 33:15,  David Havilland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, and Professor Ulf Danielsson explain the significance of the discovery.

22 thoughts on “Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three for showing that formation of black holes is predicted by relativity theory

  1. Given that Penrose and Hawking were very close collaborators, I wonder if Hawking would have shared the prize this year ?

    1. They were collaborators, though my recollection is that timewise:
      1/ Penrose with a theorem that says black holes are a logical consequence, barring very special initial conditions, of General Relativity plus a few extra reasonable assumptions, such as no timewise–‘back to the past’–curves;
      2/ Hawking with a similar, but in reverse, ‘predicting’ the visible universe to have arisen out of a similar singularity of classical spacetime (His Ph.D. thesis at DAMTP in Cambridge I think);
      3/ several collaborations between the two, refining what is above.

      But I’m no expert. The Hawking/Ellis book “The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime”, Cambridge U. Press (I think), 1972(Approx,) is likely clear on that.

      Penrose seems an amazingly vigorous old guy (I should talk) now. I remember some conference, must have been a general one mainly for mathematicians, where he seemed to go to all the small talks in mathematical physics, as well as the big ones, and had good questions at the end. Younger, at Oxford in 1975-6, he was the ‘guru of the tea room’ most days, in a quite different sense than John Conway was at Cambridge tea room around the same time. Both would be surrounded by eager grad students and postdocs. For Penrose it was mainly twistor theory in those days I think. With Conway, it was games and what Knuth christened as “Surreal Numbers” in a very entertaining book.

      1. When I was an editor for Academic Press in London Penrose invited me to come and see him at his office in Oxford. His office was as surprising as that of E O Wilson, but instead of a miniature zoo with ants Penrose’s office looked like the atelier of a painter or sculptur, filled with all kind of geometric designs and models.

    2. Perhaps you also have: later I did read that Penrose had said that Hawking also deserved a Nobel for his work on black holes.

      The Economist seems to always have somebody clever at writing amusing headlines. This time:

      “Black Holes Suck in the Nobel Prize for Physics”

  2. To see where modern scientific knowledge and modern religious superstition intersect, watch or listen the recent debate between Sir Roger and the evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig:

    And, if you please, no comments about having wasted 90 minutes of your life if you should choose to watch or listen to this debate.


        1. Penrose is freewheeling in many areas. He proposes cyclic universes (which is fringe, to say the least) and consciousness from quantum physics (again fringe, not considering evolution) and it seems to satisfy his superstitious urges [ ].

          The proof that black holes must exist is perhaps his more valuable legacy, and I would be glad if that is what people will remember. [I note that his singularity theorems, which rely on that general relativity doesn’t break down at Planck scales and so are inconsistent, are also mentioned in articles about black holes.]

          Freeman Dyson was much more hell bent in his atheism. 😀

          1. “are also mentioned in articles about black holes” = are also mentioned in articles about the Nobel Prize award on black holes.

            “hell bent” = hellbent.

          2. In time, it may be that twistor theory in some form puts Penrose’s name even more prominently into histories of late 19s, early 20s physics and mathematics.

            And I guess I’d say anything speculating about pre-our-visible-universe is “fringe”. In Penrose’s case, it seems to be more cogent and detailed speculation than one usually gets inflicted with.

            And there’s tiling.

            And a couple of books, on whether Godel’s extraordinary advances in logic make dubious some confident AI assertions about artificial intelligence and whether the brain is merely a classical computer constructed out of meat, have certainly made a splash. The original meaning of AI, and confident assertions about its future, back from Turing to maybe 1985, and the 5-year-plans for confident language translation, chess playing and theorem proving, of e.g. Minsky, never came close to working out, despite very different methods now being valuable at least for the first two.

            Minsky began as an algebraic topologist, before theoretical computer science. Less competition might be related to that, and the situation in the 1950s. But he did accomplish much else. Nowhere near Penrose’s level IMO. Then there’s Turing I mentioned, and do regard as that rare level up near Godel.

            Maybe I should shut up about revealing certain of my somewhat gossipy attitudes!

          3. “Penrose is freewheeling in many areas.”

            To me, this emphasizes what the antequated, imperfect Nobel Prize means : the prize recognizes a discovery.

            It is, by necessity, given to people because discoveries don’t spring into existence ab initio – people who, as curious creatures, undoubtedly have a large body of work, and can weigh in on topics unrelated to the Nobel discovery. Kary Mullis and Linus Pauling stand out as examples. The discovery is far greater than any three people, as they have benefitted a great proportion of humanity. The prize is not a lifetime achievement award.

            Discovery >> individual

            1. Yes, and in this case good to see one Nobel (or ½) for a deep theoretical discovery.

              Special Relativity never got one (Einstein), nor did he for General Relativity though that took much longer to be known to be true to an exceptionally large degree of accuracy, anywhere quantum considerations would make negligible difference.

              I think a good example of your assertions in physics is Penzias and Wilson–great scientists anyway, but they weren’t looking for the microwave background, and needed to ‘phone up Princeton’ to learn what it was they had discovered. Removing the ‘white dielectric material’, AKA pigeon shit, from their antenna didn’t help to get rid of the damn stuff that got them the Nobel prize.

              Neither Godel nor Turing got a Fields, but that’s different in being all theoretical.

  3. Nice to see Penrose being honoured.

    Hopefully this will encourage me to have another go at his “The Road to Reality”, 1000 pages of all the maths you need to understand the universe.

    I’m sure some people here have got it, but has anyone finished it?

    1. I’ve never heard of it. Going from Wikipedia, it seems to be a physics book, but vastly overextending into fringe topics like string theory (almost certainly rejected in it natural forms bu various experiments, but a useful tool in solid state physics say) and loop gravity (which fails as a dynamic theory). It also seems to insert his crackpot ideas about consciousness at the end.

      I would think that someone more well rounded in the basis of physics like Weinberg could have written more on point (but I don’t know). Now you have to know the subjects to skip the unnecessary parts.

      1. I also made a quick sanity check and while it seems to me most physicists accept inflation by now, Penrose may not. So the book may even be wrong in parts.

  4. For an excellent, lucid exposition on the significance of the Penrose tiling – and how it works – see this Veritasium video from last week :

    I knew about the tiling of course, but never connected it to Kepler or quasicrystals, let alone understand how it was derived. Derek Mueller has a talent for synthesizing these concepts into a story less than 20 minutes leaving me with my jaw on the floor…. though, I wonder what is keeping it from being written into an article…

  5. Note that our friend Pierre-Simon Lalace is mentioned early in Ulf Danielsson’s comments.

    Also even more astonishing to no-inkling-of-advanced-physics me – the roots of all of this apparently go as far back as 1736!

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