Left to right: Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the US won the Nobel Physics Prize on October 6, 2020, for their research into black holes. Photos: AFP / Oxford University / UCLA / Christopher Dibble The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2020 has been shared by Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist, for his work on the theoretical basis of black holes , and astronomers Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, who led independent teams for verifying the existence of such a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Penrose showed that the consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is the formation of black holes, not only in collapsing stars but also in certain dense regions of space. Such black holes capture everything: Nothing can come out, not even light.

Genzel and Ghez and their respective teams independently showed by tracking the trajectory of a star that a superheavy object – around 4 million solar masses – exists at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Ghez is the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, the first one being Marie Curie, who won in 1903.

The Nobel Prize has assumed a halo that it does not deserve. Alfred Nobel was paying blood money for creating dynamite, which magnified the horror of war. But in sciences, it is still seen as the touchstone of greatness, even as its value is going down in peace and literature , which are seen to be far more guided by politics. How else do we explain Henry Kissinger’s peace prize in 1973 and Winston Churchill’s literature prize in 1953? There are two Indian connections to black holes. The first is through physics.

It was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar , an Indian physicist, who showed in 1930 that if a star was larger than 1.4 times the solar mass, it would not stop collapsing. Chandrasekhar was the nephew of C V Raman , who was India’s first Nobel laureate in physics. Chandrasekhar received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983. He moved to the United States in 1936 and assumed American citizenship in 1953.

Below the mass now known as the Chandrasekhar limit, the star would become a white dwarf. If the mass of the star was higher, he did not speculate on what would happen. We now know that it would blow up in a supernova, and then collapse with its atoms squeezed into the nucleus-sized spaces forming a neutron star; or not stop collapsing at all, thereby creating a black hole.

The second Indian connection, and an unhappy one, is how the term “black hole” came about.

It is now established that Robert Dicke and John Wheeler, physics professors at Princeton University, were the first to coin the term black hole for the gravitational collapse of a star creating a singularity. And Dicke’s family remembers his use of the phrase black hole whenever he could not find something in the house, asking whether it had disappeared into the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The Black Hole of Calcutta was, as we know, a grossly overblown myth about a number of English soldiers and European employees of the East India Company being shut in a small prison room with two small windows, killing a number of them by suffocation.

The numbers that were claimed then by the East India Company have been disputed by a number of historians, but provided the justification of wholesale killings, plunder and the seizure of lands that finally became the British Empire in India. It overshadowed – in English minds – the innumerable massacres that the British carried out in its colonies and the devastating famines that accompanied British rule.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity, formulated in 1915, led Karl Schwarzschild , an astronomer serving in the German Army in World War I, to publish a solution to Einstein’s field equations, which showed that if matter and energy exceeded a certain bound, it would cause space-time to collapse on itself, producing a singularity – or a black hole. The external world would feel its gravitational effect, but no mass or even light could escape from such a black hole.

Though Einstein’s general theory predicted the possibility of black holes, even he did not really believe that they could exist. One major objection about the formation of black holes was that it demanded the collapse to be symmetrical, and it was argued that no collapse could be perfectly symmetrical, and therefore the formation of a black hole was a remote possibility.

Penrose showed, using a mathematical topology that he developed known as the Penrose transform, that unlike other derivations for black holes, his approach did not require perfect symmetry of the collapsing matter. Applying the general theory of relativity, Penrose showed that the only requirement was enough density of matter in a given space, and this condition was enough for the formation of a black hole.

Such a theoretical derivation is not enough for physicists; physics needs experimental evidence to confirm a theory. Or at least theory alone is not enough for the Nobel Prize and the Swedish Academy that privilege experimental physics over theory. This was the argument against giving Einstein the Nobel Prize, though the reasons ran far deeper.

Einstein had become world-famous for having turned the familiar world of Newtonian physics upside down. But despite his worldwide fame, he had enemies both in Germany and in academia because of his opposition to World War I , his radical views including socialism , and the fact that he was Jewish.

The prevailing orthodoxy of physics, including the Nobel Committee, dismissed Einstein for all these reasons and argued that his theories were only theories, and lacked experimental proof.

To end this argument, the English astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919 proposed an experimental verification of the theory of relativity. If a massive object curves space around itself because of its mass, it should be possible to observe this curvature by measuring starlight passing close to the sun during an eclipse. Eddington did this during a solar eclipse of 1919 and was able to show that the results closely agreed with the predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The Times of London declared, “Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe,” while a New York Times headline said, “Lights All Askew in the Heavens.”

Einstein became a rock star in physics, a stature unmatched by any scientist.

But even that did not get him the Nobel Prize in 1920 and 1921. Science historian Robert Friedman wrote in his book The Politics of Excellence that the Nobel Committee could not stomach a “political and intellectual radical, who – it was said – did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics.”

The 1920 prize went to an eminently forgettable discovery of an inert nickel-steel alloy, and in 1921, the Nobel Prize was not awarded. By then, denying Einstein was possible for the committee even if it meant not bestowing the prize on anyone at all.

Finally, in 1922, Einstein was awarded the held-over Nobel of 1921, not for the theory of relativity for which he was most famous, but rather for the discovery of the photoelectric effect – the discovery that light also behaves as a particle – that Einstein had made […]