Lurking at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is something big—something that as far as we know, can only be a supermassive black hole. For discovering the presence of this mysterious object, renowned astronomer Andrea Ghez was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics on Oct. 6.
A professor at the University of California, Los Angeles since 1994, Ghez grew up in Chicago and is a 1983 graduate of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, an N-12 school renowned for its pioneering approach to education.
Ghez traces her interest in science to her earliest days as a child in Hyde Park, where she remembers being fascinated with NASA’s Apollo launches, and had “some wonderful mentors” at Lab who reinforced her passion for math and science.
One of them was high school chemistry teacher Judith Keane, SB’62, MAT’64, who on Tuesday recalled Ghez as an “exceptionally brilliant student.”
“To have taught such a special student is a teacher’s dream. That Andrea was brilliant goes without saying, and she was exceptionally focused on her interests,” said Keane, 80. “I am especially proud that Andrea continues to take such a strong interest in teaching and mentoring her own students, especially the girls.
“I have to say that I’m glad that I lived to see this happen. It’s very gratifying. It’s her work and her honor, but I feel it too. I’m so proud of her.”
A photo of the two of them, taken at a lecture Ghez gave at the Adler Planetarium in the 1990s, still sits on Keane’s desk.
In a 2006 interview with PBS’ NOVA, Ghez said of Keane: “She was one of the only female science teachers I ever had, and she was incredibly encouraging. I think it was important for me to see, very early on, a woman in this role.”
Ghez, the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics at UCLA, becomes the fourth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. She shared half of the prize with Prof. Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany for research on the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, which is called Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”).
Using the newly built Keck Telescope, Ghez led a team that carefully measured the movements of stars at the center of the Milky Way. They were able to show that these stars were revolving around something incredibly heavy, proving the existence of a massive object at the center.
She also developed a technique known as speckle imaging, which combined many short exposures from a telescope into a single, crisper image, and continues to use adaptive optics to further sharpen our view from Earth—and compile evidence of young stars at the center of the universe for her research on how stars and their systems evolve.
“I’m thrilled and incredibly honored to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics,” said Ghez, who also shared the award with Prof. Roger Penrose of Oxford University. “We have cutting-edge tools and a world-class research team, and that combination makes discovery tremendous fun. Our understanding of how the universe works is still so incomplete. The Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn.”
Ghez is among the 93 scholars associated with the University of Chicago to receive a Nobel Prize.
Ghez and her family have deep ties to the University of Chicago. Her mother, Susanne, ran the Renaissance Society at UChicago for decades; her late father, Gilbert, taught in the economics department at UChicago before moving to Roosevelt University; and her sisters Marissa and Helena also graduated from the Laboratory Schools. Lab honored Andrea Ghez in 2013 with its distinguished alumna award.
“Lab has for 125 years sought to help young people develop the curiosity, creativity and confidence that will take them successfully through life—whether or not they win a Nobel Prize!” said David W. Magill, interim director of the Laboratory Schools. “We could not be more thrilled for Andrea, and we are so deeply honored that her time at Lab was formative to her career and life as a scientist.”
Ghez earned her bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1987 and her Ph.D. from Caltech in 1992. Among her previous awards are the Crafoord Prize in 2012 and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
Ghez is scheduled to give the Maria Goeppert Mayer Lecture at the University of Chicago on Oct. 22. Last year’s speaker was Donna Strickland, the 2018 Nobel-winning physicist.