5 September 2019

Event Horizon Telescope Team Receives Breakthrough Prize

Richard Fienberg, AAS Press Officer

This post is adapted from a Breakthrough Prize press release:

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founding sponsors — Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki — have announced the recipients of the 2020 Breakthrough Prize and 2020 New Horizons Prize, awarding a collective $21.6 million in recognition of important achievements in the life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics.

Now in its eighth year, the Breakthrough Prize, known as the "Oscars of Science," annually recognizes achievements in disciplines that ask the biggest questions and seek the deepest explanations. Considered the world's most generous science prize, each Breakthrough Prize is $3 million.

Black Hole in M87 Revealed by the Event Horizon TelescopeThe 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is being awarded to the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration for the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of radio telescopes. Director Shep Doeleman (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian) — recently named our Berkeley Prize lecturer for the 235th AAS meeting in Honolulu in January — will accept on behalf of the collaboration. The $3 million prize will be shared equally with 347 scientists co-authoring any of the six EHT papers published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on 10 April 2019.

Using eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world in Antarctica, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona, and Spain, a global collaboration of scientists at 60 institutions operating in 20 countries and regions captured an image of a black hole for the first time. By synchronizing each telescope using a network of atomic clocks, the team created a virtual telescope as large as the Earth, with a resolving power never before achieved from the surface of our planet. One of their first targets was the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 in Virgo — its mass equivalent to 6.5 billion Suns. After painstakingly analyzing the data with novel algorithms and techniques, the team produced an image of this galactic monster, silhouetted against hot gas swirling around the black hole, that matched expectations from Einstein's theory of gravity: a bright ring marking the point where light orbits the black hole, surrounding a dark region where light cannot escape the black hole's gravitational pull.

In addition to the Breakthrough Prize, six New Horizons Prizes were awarded to 12 scientists recognizing early career achievements in fundamental physics and mathematics. Among the recipients of the 2020 New Horizons in Physics Prize are Jo Dunkley (Princeton University), Samaya Nissanke (University of Amsterdam), and Kendrick Smith (Perimeter Institute) for the development of novel techniques to extract fundamental physics from astronomical data.

The new laureates will be recognized at the eighth annual Breakthrough Prize gala awards ceremony on Sunday, 3 November, at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and broadcast live on National Geographic television. Each year the program has a theme, and this year's topic — "Seeing the Invisible" — is inspired by the first image of a black hole as well as the broader power of science and mathematics to reveal hidden, uncharted worlds.