Andrea Ghez is the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Courtesy photo.

When UCLA Professor Andrea Ghez was awoken by a phone call at 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning, she had an immediate fear of impending bad news. That alarm quickly turned to delight as she discovered she was being awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for her research on black holes, making her the fourth woman selected in the award’s 119 year history.

Ghez was awarded “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy” alongside UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Reinhard Genzel. The other half of the prize was awarded to Oxford Professor Emeritus Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

“I’m just so thrilled to have been awarded the Nobel Prize, this morning. Thanks to the Keck Observatory, I’ve spent the last two decades developing new ways of using this telescope and ways of overcoming the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere to get very sharp images of the universe,” said Ghez at a Tuesday news conference. “I’ve been able to measure how stars move and their orbits demonstrate that there’s an object 4 million times the mass of the Sun inside a volume that corresponds to the size of our solar system. That’s the proof of a black hole.”

A black hole is a region of space with such a strong gravitational pull that nothing can escape from it — not even light. There are stellar-mass black holes weighing two to three times the Sun’s mass and then there are supermassive black holes, like the one Ghez studies, that weigh billions of solar masses and are located at the center of most galaxies.

Ghez’s use of adaptive optics has allowed her to study over 3,000 stars that are orbiting this supermassive black hole. The proof of this black hole was published in a July 2019 edition of Science Journal by Ghez and her colleagues. It is the most comprehensive test of Einstein’s theory of relativity to date and improves the existing evidence of this black hole by a factor of 10 million.

The first woman who won the Nobel Prize in Physics was Marie Curie in 1903. It took 60 years until Maria Goeppert Mayer became the second woman in 1963 and another 55 years until Donna Strickland won in 2018. On Tuesday, Ghez became the fourth woman to join their ranks and hopes to see a future with far more female scientists.

“I’m grateful to be the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. I’m a huge believer in the importance of role models, so I’m delighted to become another role model to encourage the next generation of women to pursue their passion in science,” said Ghez.

Ghez is from New York City and received her B.S. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987, her Ph.D in Physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1992, and has been working at UCLA since 1994.

In Tuesday’s press conference she shared that her future research interests include searching for dark matter, understanding how gravity works near black holes, and the interactions of stars at the center of our galaxy.

“These stars actually physically change on a few year timescale. And for me, this is rather astounding that we can see these changes dynamically,” said Ghez. “We’re looking at light that takes 26,000 years to travel from the center of our galaxy to us, and yet we’re seeing things that are evolving on a year timescale. There’s something about that that’s rather profound to me.”