Scientific American: Andrea Ghez and the experiment nobody thought would work

Elena Zhukova/University of California

Andrea Ghez, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.

Hilton Lewis is the director of the W.M. Keck Observatory. In a column published today in Scientific American, he offers a unique perspective on the ingenuity and tenacity that has propelled UCLA astrophysicist Andrea Ghez throughout her career and, this week, earned her the Nobel Prize in physics. An excerpt follows; read the full story here.

Standing in my office 25 years ago was an unknown, newly minted astronomer with a half-smile on her face. She had come with an outrageous request — really a demand — that my team modify our exhaustively tested software to make one of our most important and in-demand scientific instruments do something it had never been designed for, and risk breaking it. All to carry out an experiment that was basically a waste of time and couldn’t be done—to prove that a massive black hole lurked at the center of our Milky Way.

My initial “no way? (perhaps I used a stronger expression) gradually gave way in the face of her cheerful but unwavering determination. It was my first encounter with a force of nature, Andrea Ghez, one of three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, for her work on providing the conclusive experimental evidence of a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns residing at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

That determination and the willingness to take calculated risks has always characterized Andrea. For 25 years she has focused almost exclusively on Sagittarius A* — the name of our own local supermassive black hole. It is remarkable that an entire field of study has grown up in the intervening quarter century, of searching for and finding evidence of these monsters thought to lie at the heart of every large galaxy. And Andrea is without question one of the great pioneers in this search....

Today, Andrea sits at the pinnacle of scientific recognition for her achievements. But as she would be the very first to acknowledge, this triumph represents the combined efforts of so many. From the theoretical predictions of the peerless Albert Einstein, through those who had the vision to build the amazingly complex machines we call simply “telescopes,’ to the siting at the best locations on Earth for this research, to those who conceive of and build the instrumentation and run the operations, to the science teams that do the research—all of it essential, the product of the work of thousands.

But in the end, one person had the idea for the research. One person had the chutzpah to propose it and one person had the determination, tenacity and focus to make it happen, undeterred by all who said it was a waste of time. That person is my friend and longtime colleague, the one who refused to take “no? for an answer, and who probably doesn’t even have it in her vocabulary: Andrea Ghez, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Read the full column at Scientific American.

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