UCLA professor and Masters swimmer Andrea Ghez was announced on Tuesday as a recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.
The Nobel Prize is one of the most recognizable and prestigious awards on earth. Given by the Nobel Foundation based out of Sweden, prizes have been awarded annually since 1901 in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine. In 1968, the central bank of Sweden established an additional award in the field of economics.
Nobel award winners, known as Nobel laureates, receive a gold medal, a diploma, and prize money that is decided annually. For 2020, each full laureate (some awards are shared) receives 10 million Swedish kronor, which converts to about $1.1 million US dollars.
Ghez shares half of the 2020 prize with her colleague Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The pair were honored for their work in the discovery that a “supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy,” likely a blackhole.
She becomes just the 4th woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics, joining Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, and Donna Strickland in 2018.
The other half of the award went to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”
From a UCLA press release:
In July 2019, the journal Science published a study by Ghez and her research group that is the most comprehensive test of Albert Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy. Although she concluded that “Einstein’s right, at least for now,” the research group is continuing to test Einstein’s theory, which she says cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole.
Ghez studies more than 3,000 stars that orbit the supermassive black hole. Black holes have such high density that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. The center of the vast majority of galaxies appears to have a supermassive black hole, she said.
When she’s not doing crucial work that forms the foundation of scientific understanding, Ghez trains several days a week with the UCLA Masters’ swimming program. There she swims under two-time U.S. Olympian Erika Stebbins, who is married to UCLA’s diving coach Tom Stebbins.
Ghez was one of the first members of the team when it formed in 1995, when she joined along with her husband. The pair met as graduate students when they both joined the master’s team at MIT.
“It’s been really fun to see the team grow into this enormous endeavor at UCLA,” said Ghez, who says this team and its members are an important part of her life. “I have to say it’s one of the wonderful things that allows campus to connect with itself in interesting and unusual ways in the sense that I get to meet not only other faculty, but also students and staff and people in the community. It’s a very leveling activity because you’re all in the pool. There’s no hierarchy, with the exception of how fast you are. In terms of what you do for the university, that’s erased.”
Ghez says that swimming helps her look at the super-massive questions that her work tries to answer from a different perspective.
“Often you can solve problems when you’re not looking at them directly, so I often find that I can work things out in the pool. It’s almost like my form of meditating.”
All 2020 Nobel Prize Winners
- Physiology or Medicine – Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, Charles M. Rice (for their work in the discovery of the hepatitis C virus)
- Physics – Andrea Ghez, Reinhard Genzel, Roger Penrose (for their work with black holes)
- Chemistry – Announced Wednesday
- Literature – Announced Thursday
- Peace – Announced Friday
- Economics – Announced Monday