Scientists behind first image of black hole awarded $3m prize

Hundreds of researchers share Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics

An international collaboration that captured the first image of a black hole, a cosmic plughole from which nothing that enters can ever escape, has won the most lucrative prize in physics.

Hundreds of researchers on the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team will share the $3m Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for their image of the monster black hole at the heart of Messier 87, a galaxy 55m light years from Earth.

The remarkable shot of one of the most mysterious types of object in the universe required astronomers to coordinate observations from eight telescopes on four continents from Antarctica to Arizona to create an Earth-sized instrument sensitive enough to spot a bagel on the moon.

The picture’s unveiling in April marked the moment that scientists saw what was once considered unseeable: the bottomless wells of gravity that Albert Einstein loathed even as his general theory of relativity predicted their existence.

“We’ve known for a long time that this was an amazing scientific result, an amazing result for astronomy, but to get the recognition on the world stage with a prize like this is vindication of all the hard work, all the sacrifice by the team,” said Shep Doeleman, the director of the EHT project at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The 347 members of the team will each receive about $8,600 (£7,000).

Shep Doeleman (left) revealing the first ever picture of a black hole at a press conference in Washington in April.
Shep Doeleman (left) revealing the first ever picture of a black hole at a press conference in Washington in April. Photograph: Pete Marovich/EPA

The prize is the latest in what has become an annual flurry of awards from the Breakthrough Foundation, an organisation sponsored by Silicon Valley billionaires including the investor Yuri Milner and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Last month, three theoretical physicists won the $3m Special Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for marrying Einstein’s description of gravity with quantum mechanics in a speculative theory called supergravity.

In an announcement on Thursday, six other researchers were named as Breakthrough prize winners for their work in the life sciences and mathematics. Among them are David Julius at the University of California, San Francisco, who discovered mechanisms of pain sensation; and Alex Eskin at the University of Chicago who proved a mathematical proposition called the “magic wand theorem” with Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, who died aged 40 in 2017.

The Messier 87 photograph gave scientists their first glimpse of the ring of dust and gas that hurtles at near the speed of light around a black hole before it plunges into the abyss. The ring encloses the round silhouette of the black hole’s event horizon – the point of no return, after which the gravitational pull is so intense that not even light can escape.

“This is only the beginning,” said Doeleman. “We’re launching into a new era of precision imaging of black holes.”

The EHT team is working on an image of Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the centre of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Unlike Messier 87’s supermassive black hole, which is 6.5bn times more massive than the sun, the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way is a mere 4m times as massive. Matter and light lap the smaller black hole faster and its appearance in the sky changes minute by minute, making it a tougher beast to photograph.

The next major goal is to record video of black holes, a feat that may require the use of orbiting telescopes that capture rapid sequences of images. Footage of black holes will help scientists uncover how they consume what falls inside, how intense fields around them propel jets of subatomic particles into space, and how black holes can shine brighter than all the stars in their galaxy combined.

“Prizes like this acknowledge the deep, meaningful tradition of learning, of us wanting to understand our place in the cosmos,” said Doeleman. “It makes us stop for a moment, frankly. It gives us a moment to stop and appreciate that the universe is an amazing place.”


Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

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