Science

Scientists behind first direct black hole image win Breakthrough Prize

The first direct image of a black hole, as produced by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration
The first direct image of a black hole, as produced by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration
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The first direct image of a black hole, as produced by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration
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The first direct image of a black hole, as produced by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration

Back in April the world got its first direct glimpse of a black hole. The blurry image shows a bright ring of material around a dark circle in the middle, confirming long-held assumptions about how they would look. Now the team behind this historic work is being rewarded with the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

Unsurprisingly, black holes are notoriously hard to see, on account of their gravitational pull that’s so strong light itself can’t escape once it gets close enough. But what is very visible is the material surrounding the black hole itself. The intense pressures on this stuff cause it to heat up and shine brightly – up until it reaches the point of no return and vanishes forever. That creates a bright donut shape with a deep black center.

While this structure had been theorized for years, it had never been directly imaged. To do so, an international team of 347 scientists used radio telescopes across the world to create what’s effectively an Earth-sized telescope. This Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) was then used to observe the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy.

And now, the work has earned the team the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Established in 2012 by Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and others, these awards are kind of like a showier version of the Nobel Prizes. Winners receive US$3 million in prize money, and the awards are handed out at a ceremony hosted by Hollywood celebrities, such as Morgan Freeman or Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.

Ultimately, the idea is to celebrate science and hopefully get more people, especially kids, excited about the field.

“It has been an honor to share this experience and the Breakthrough award with the EHT team,” says Katie Bouman, one of the members of the team. “And the cherry on top of it all has been seeing so many excited and smiling faces from around the world whenever the black hole image is shown and its story told. I hope this picture continues to inspire the next generation of young scientists!”

Other prizes being awarded include one in Mathematics, awarded to Alex Eskin for “revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials,” and the Life Sciences Prize, which is going to Jeffrey Friedman for discovering a new endocrine system in the body that regulates food intake.

The eighth annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony will be held on Sunday November 3, at NASA Ames Research Center. It will be broadcast live on National Geographic.

Sources: Breakthrough Prize, Harvard

10 comments
ChiliDog
It amazes me how much "factual" knowledge can be drawn from a blurry image of something that is at least 53 million light years away (53 million if you can believe data that is totally unverifiable). With absolutely no way to verify any of the "factual" conclusions that are drawn from the image, and maybe some other data, all that can be concluded from is conjecture at best. Are we suppose to blindly believe everything these people say when there is absolutely no way to verify what they say? Come on, that blurry image could be anything. How can anyone put so much confidence into something that can't be proven? I am so tired of these so called scientists presenting theory as fact.
Gilligans Islands
Looks like a Duncan Doughnut. In truth it is. Aside from that they really us to believe that we can see a black hole that supposedly swallows light. This is what they told us for years. So, how can we see a black hole? We can't.
Edna Perez-Cardona
Is it me, or does this look like they just copy/pasted a picture from the movie "Lord of the Rings"??
Douglas Rogers
A stellar black hole passing near the line of sight to a star should cause large and rapid motion of the image. This is a very rare event.
Reid Barnes
How big a prize does it take to turn an elaborately concocted image Into one of a ‘black hole’, when the ‘black hole’ was erected from a theory that not only violates the basic laws of thermodynamics, but has turned out to be based on self-contradicting non-Euclidean geometry? We have been fascinated by Stephen Hawking’s black holes for over a third of a century, but eventually Hawking informed us they are not really black and there is no event horizon exactly. And how far must they go to perpetuate a gravitational model for cosmology based on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity? Belief in everything from ‘black holes’ and dark matter to dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe is propagated using Einstein’s theory. Has it become a religion masquerading as science? Einstein claimed that the bending of light passing near the Sun, famously measured by Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse, and also that the precession of the orbit of Mercury around the Sun were due to space-time deformation as characterized by his theory. In essence, he claimed that the explanation for the phenomena is that the geometry near massive objects is not Euclidean. Einstein said that “in the presence of a gravitational field, the geometry is not Euclidean.” But if that non-Euclidean geometry is self-contradicting, then Einstein’s explanation and his theory cannot be correct. How can it be correct if the title of the Facebook Note, “Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity Is Based on Self-contradicting Non-Euclidean Geometry,” is a true statement? See the Facebook Note at the link: https://www.facebook.com/notes/reid-barnes/einsteins-general-theory-of-relativity-is-based-on-self-contradicting-non-euclid/1676238042428763/
ljaques
Chili, I'm right with you. I'm tired of these so-called journalists and so-called scientists presenting stretched theory as fact.
Pmeon
The outer part of the picture looks blacker then the centre. Where is the hole again, besides the gapping big one in the theory. The force of gravity is 10 to the 40th power less than electrostatic force. According to the theory a black hole starts off as a neutron star that is made of neutrons, only problem is a free neutron has a half life of 10.3 minutes. There are so many imaginary leaps of faith that must be made to explain a blackhole, none of those steps have been proven or observed. Calling MSU on this one.
neon-yellow
Looks to me that it could be a burned-out star. But what if it were a star that acts like a comet? I suppose that could not happen because there would be too much friction for it to move through space. It looks to me like it has burned out on the inside. It may be so massive a star that its center were vast enough not even to feel heat of its ring. You know how a lagoon can surround such fluidity of ocean with ocean bits & sand? Am suggesting that its illusion were product of its vastness. So, a good question would be to inquire about its size, but it looks vaster than any body of our solar system. If it seems to have gravitational pull, then that could be where massive heat and cold of its bereft center collide. For example, its outer ring could be distance between our sun and nearest sun, and its inner darkness could be size of our galaxy -- without being same thing together.
neon-yellow
I'm thinking, there is no possible way that outer ring is not of gaseous disposition. Since its inner light trails down into it, I might think I'm looking at a 'gas volcano' on a planet that simply has no sun!!
neon-yellow
As my conclusion goes, it looks like a semi-circular thing driving through space so rapidly that its outer edges glow from friction of some form, maybe silicon dust, and it seems gaseous if not molten. I think.that if computer performed analysis that it could detect the bright semi-circle to be reflected precisely to complete this circle effect. I can't fathom why the reflection looks as if in liquid. At a low point, I had this disheartening notion that it was a peach cut in half and blasted with light.