Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the supermassive black hole that lurks at the center of the Milky Way.
Ghez led a team that carefully measured the movements of stars at the center of the Milky Way, showing that these stars were revolving around something incredibly heavy. That black hole, named Sagittarius A*, is thought to have played an important role in the formation of our galaxy. She also developed a technique known as speckle imaging, which combines many short exposures from a telescope into a single, crisper image.
A professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, 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. Last month, she gave a colloquium at the UChicago physics department explaining how to prove a black hole exists.
Ahead of the Nobel Prize award ceremony on Dec. 10, she spoke with UChicago News about her love of science, how to get back up again after running into obstacles in life, and the responsibilities that come with winning science’s top honor.
“You become a spokesperson for science,” she said. “With being the fourth woman ever awarded in physics, there’s an opportunity there to be a more visible role model. How do you want to use that opportunity to advance science—your science, science at large, and the opportunities for the next generation to do science. So I’m still thinking a lot about that.”
The full interview, edited for clarity, is below.
You’ve had a long career in science—what kept you going?
I love it! I think it’s all about what you love. You can endure a lot if you have passion for something.
Anything you do with great intensity comes with all kinds of interesting issues. In both science and life, you’re going to experience—I’m looking for a different word than failure, because it’s not really failure. It’s bumps in the road. It’s things not going how you planned or thought, and how to develop that ability to understand the idea that all challenges can be opportunities.
I have to say, that’s become one of my favorite sayings—that all challenges can also be opportunities. When I talk to my kids, I say that good faceplants are really important in life. You need to figure out how to get up and figure out what didn’t work, and how you move forward. How do you take whatever you can learn from it, and just keep going? Because that always happens. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re from. These things will present as challenges; how do you reposition yourself so that you can make progress?
What’s an example of a challenge that became an opportunity for you?
Well, you know, the first time I proposed to do this [now Nobel-winning] experiment to get telescope time, it was turned down. To me, it was so obvious that it was such a good idea! I realized when you’re trying to convince a group of people to do something that hasn’t been done before, just because you think it’s a good idea, that doesn’t mean they’re going to accept it.
So it forced me to articulate the science better. That’s the opportunity: Figure out what they didn’t like and strengthen the argument.
The most interesting moments scientifically are when you talk to somebody with a really different point of view. Often you can find deeper truths, or the weaknesses in work, by having dialogues. In fact, that’s why I like giving talks about my work at other universities, because you present it to different audiences and they often have something new to offer, or something you didn’t think of.