The 2008 Prize in Astronomy
in recognition of his outstanding contributions in demonstrating that the Milky Way contains a supermassive black hole at its centre
The Shaw Prize in Astronomy for 2008 is awarded to Professor Reinhard Genzel, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, in recognition of his outstanding contribution in demonstrating that the Milky Way contains a supermassive black hole at its centre.
In 1969, Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees suggested that the Milky Way might contain a supermassive black hole. But evidence for such an object was lacking at the time because the centre of the Milky Way is obscured by interstellar dust, and was detected only as a relatively faint radio source. Reinhard Genzel obtained compelling evidence for this conjecture by developing state-of-the-art astronomical instruments and carrying out a persistent programme of observing our Galactic Centre for many years, which ultimately led to the discovery of a black hole with a mass a few million times that of the Sun, in the centre of the Milky Way.
An Essay on the Prize
At the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees proposed that the Milky Way and perhaps most other galactic nuclei might contain a central massive black hole. But the evidence for such an object was lacking at the time because the centre of the Milky Way is obscured by interstellar dust, and was detected only as a relatively faint radio source.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Charles Townes and his collaborators including Reinhard Genzel, developed instruments capable of observing the centre of the Milky Way at infrared wavelengths, which can pass through the interstellar dust clouds with relatively little obscuration. By analyzing the spectrum of such radiation, they inferred that gas is swirling around a central concentration containing a few million solar masses. These authors suggested that the central object might be a supermassive black hole, but the observations did not have sufficient angular resolution to prove that conjecture.
Reinhard Genzel, born 1952 in Bad Homburg v d H, Germany, is currently the Director of Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, a Professor in the Physics Department of the University of California, Berkeley, and an Honorary Professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich. He received his PhD from the University of Bonn (FRG) in 1978. Professor Genzel is a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.
10 June 2008, Hong Kong