UC Berkeley professor emeritus Reinhard Genzel receives Nobel Prize in physics

Photo of Reinhard Genzel (right) and Charles Townes (left)
UC Berkeley Physics Department/Courtesy
Reinhard Genzel sits with the late Nobel laureate Charles Townes, whom Genzel worked with as a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley in making initial observations for his research.

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics and astronomy Reinhard Genzel was named a recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.”

Genzel, who is also the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, will be sharing his half of the award with UCLA professor of physics and astronomy Andrea Ghez, the leader of the competing team that confirmed Genzel’s findings. The other half of the prize was awarded to theoretical physicist Roger Penrose for “the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” 

“There are few really dramatic bizarre elements that attract all of us,” said campus physics professor and 2011 Nobel Prize recipient Saul Perlmutter. “The whole idea of black holes going from being a theoretical topic to something we’re able to study is something we’ve been dying to know more about.”

Genzel and Ghez found an “extremely heavy, invisible object” at the center of our galaxy, according to a Nobel Prize press release. In a press release Tuesday, UC President Michael Drake said their findings have produced the most compelling evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Using the world’s largest telescopes, Genzel and Ghez developed techniques to observe the center of the Milky Way through large clouds of interstellar gas and dust, according to the Nobel Prize press release. Refining their methods over time, they were able to compensate for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and construct unique instruments that allowed them to observe the galactic center and its surrounding stars. 

During a press conference Tuesday, Genzel said the process of gathering his findings took decades of research.

Some of Genzel’s initial observations were made when he was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley working with the late Nobel laureate Charles Townes. Genzel added that working with campus students and postdoctorates himself was a “very good experience” and said it was Townes’ dream to see the research completed.  

Genzel also said he appreciated his competition with Ghez and that the two have a virtual celebration planned in the next few days.

“It was like we were both artists on a big scene and the scientific audience was in a perfect position to see us perform the same exercise and then judge whether the outcome was the same,” Genzel said during the press conference. “Just perfect scientific principle.”

Genzel added, however, that his findings are by no means final and that the scientific community must continue to test and verify his work.

Contact Katia Pokotylo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katiapokotylo_.