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Wadham Fellow awarded Nobel Prize in Physics

Wadham emeritus fellow Sir Roger Penrose has won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on black holes, it was announced today.

Professor Penrose, of the Oxford Mathematical Insititute, was awarded his half of the prize for “the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”.

The Academy said that Penrose “used ingenious mathematical methods in his proof that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity,” and that his groundbreaking article is “still regarded as the most important contribution to the general theory of relativity since Einstein.”

The award, announced on Tuesday, will be shared between three winners, with half going to Penrose and the other half shared between Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez. The award is presented by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and it is worth 10m Swedish kronor (£870,000).

Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of California, USA, share half of the prize for the “discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy,”, known as Sagittarius A*. Andrea Ghez, Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is only the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, after Marie Curie (1903), Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1967) and Donna Strickland (2018). You can read The Oxford Blue’s interview with Donna Strickland here.

Sir Roger Penrose was born in Colchester, Essex, in 1931, and took his undergraduate at University College London, achieving a First in Mathematics. Penrose completed his PhD at St John’s College Cambridge, and in 1973 he was awarded the title of Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, which he now holds in Emeritus.

“The history of black holes goes way back in time to the end of the 18th Century. Then, through Einstein’s general relativity, we had the tools to describe these objects for real. The mathematics of these objects was incredibly complex. Many researchers believed they were nothing more than mathematical artefacts, existing only on paper. It took researchers decades to realise that they could exist in the real world. That’s what Roger Penrose did,” said Danielsson, a member of the Nobel Committee, in an announcement broadcast on Tuesday.

“He understood the mathematics, he introduced new tools and then could actually prove that this is a process you can naturally expect to happen – that a star collapses and turns into a black hole. Sir Roger laid the theoretical foundations to say: these objects exist. You can expect to find them if you go out and look for them”.

The in-person awards ceremony was cancelled this year due to the pandemic, and the broadcast featured footage of the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

Sir Roger Penrose has been contacted for comment.

Lois Heslop

Lois Heslop is the co-founder of The Oxford Blue and was Editor-in-Chief for HT20 and TT20. She is in her second year studying Physics at Lady Margaret Hall, and hails from South London. Her other interests include classical music and opera, and she is currently a choral scholar.