These ultra-dense objects regularly star in movies, in popular idioms, and in a nonstop stream of headlines reminding us that Einstein was right. However, we’ve had a scientific description of black holes for just over a hundred years, when Karl Schwarzschild solved key equations in Albert’s newly minted theory of general relativity. It took scientists until the 1960s to then move black holes out of pure mathematics and show that they can, in fact, form across the cosmos.
These days, we have evidence of black holes eating stars, messing with the motion of nearby objects, belching out jets of high-energy particles, and crashing into each other with such force they send ripples through the fabric of spacetime. At the same time, our telescopes are getting so powerful, astronomers were able to capture the first-ever direct glimpse of a black hole’s gaping maw in 2019.
Now, three researchers are sharing the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work making black holes such scientific all-stars. One, Roger Penrose, was part of the team that offered the first evidence black holes exist in nature. The other two, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez (pictured above), conducted foundational work showing that a whopper of an invisible object (thought to be a supermassive black hole) lurks in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.