Long deserved: Pinoy physicists cheer Nobel Prize for black hole scientists

Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 30 2020 05:29 PM | Updated as of Oct 31 2020 12:19 AM

David Haviland, member of the Nobel Committee for Physics and Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Goran K. Hansson announce the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics presented on the screen: Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden October 6, 2020.  Fredrik Sandberg, TT News Agency via Reuters

MANILA - For the black hole scientists and astrophysicists of the University of the Philippines (UP), the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics made them feel like they were part of a team that had also just won.

When the Nobel Committee announced that Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez won the world’s top physics award for their work on black holes, Prof. Ian Vega of the UP National Institute of Physics’ (NIP) Gravity Group said he felt like he himself had won. 

“Ba’t feeling ko parang ako ang nanalo?” Vega wrote on his Facebook page after the awards were announced.

(Why do I feel like I myself won?)

Reginald Bernardo, the Philippines’ first homegrown PhD in gravitational physics, said the award was like a validation for their field.

“Parang 3/4 ata ng grupo [Gravity Group] ang nagtatrabaho sa black holes at theoretical astrophysics, kaya parang kami na rin na-awardan,” said Bernardo.

(Three-quarters of the group work on black holes and theoretical astrophysics so we felt like we were also awarded.)

Prof. Reina Reyes, UP NIP astrophysicist, said the Nobel Prize announcements “were a welcome bout of good news amidst the pandemic and all the suffering around.” 

“It is also a timely reminder of the importance of scientific research and the work of the whole scientific community, amidst the distrust and damage wreaked by politicians here and around the world," Reyes said.

An illustration depicting a star (in the foreground) experiencing spaghettification as it’s sucked in by a supermassive black hole (in the background) during a "tidal disruption event".  M. Kornmesser, European Southern Observatory, AFP

On Oct. 6, Penrose was finally recognized by the Nobel Committee for his work dating back more than half a century ago, which proved that black holes were a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. 

Genzel and Ghez, meanwhile, were awarded the Nobel for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy -- a supermassive black hole.


Nobel laureate Roger Penrose (third from left) and Filipino physicist Reina Reyes (fourth from left) at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, italy

Both Reyes and Vega said they were fortunate to have met Penrose earlier in their careers. 

Reyes said she once attended a lecture by Penrose while studying at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

“It was a packed lecture room and most of it probably flew over my head, but it was a memorable experience for a young aspiring physicist like me,” Reyes said. 

“A bunch of classmates and I took the opportunity to have a group photo with him after the lecture. He was kind enough to indulge us.” 

Vega said he attended several of Penrose's lectures when he still studying in the United States. 

“The first was in 2010 when I attended the Chandrasekhar Centennial Symposium at the University of Chicago. I was then a postdoc at the University of Guelph and drove about 8 hours just to attend,” Vega said. 

Penrose talked about the mathematical properties of black holes, which Vega found very interesting because he himself was already working on a number of black hole physics problems at the time. 

“What stood out for me though were his old school acetate slides with exquisitely hand-drawn color figures. He's apparently famous for these. He doesn't use Powerpoint!” Vega said.
Vega got to introduce himself to Penrose during one of the breaks in the lecture and talked to the future Nobel winner about his own black hole research.

“He was very gracious, but I think what really got his attention was the fact that I was from the Philippines,” Vega recalled. 

Reyes, whose work has been cited as providing proof for Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, said meeting Penrose left a mark on her as a young physicist.

“He was already well-known for his theoretical contributions. At that time, he was claiming that there was an anomalous signature in the cosmic microwave background signal. It made an impression on me that he was a very bold scientist, unafraid to put forward novel ideas.” Reyes said. 


Vega said that when he first met Penrose, he had already studied much of the future Nobel laureate’s gravity work in detail. 

According to Vega, Penrose was being recognized for work he did with fellow renowned physicist Stephen Hawking more than half a century ago. 

“Ang citation ni Penrose is for the inevitability of black hole formation. Technically, this is embodied by the (Stephen) Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems,” said Vega.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking addresses a public meeting in Cape Town May 11, 2008. Mike Hutchings, Reuters/file

Einstein predicted in 1915, in his theory of General Relativity, that space and time could be warped by gravity. Yet he did not actually believe in the idea that anything could become so massive and dense that light itself could not escape its gravity. 

According to Vega, before Penrose and Hawking, the physics community did not take the idea of black holes seriously despite being predicted by Einstein’s theory. This was because Einstein’s equations led to “singularities” -- zero-dimensional points where density and gravity become infinite, and space-time curves infinitely.

To many physicists then, this did not make any sense, and thus they dismissed the idea of black holes as mere products of bad mathematical assumptions.

Then, in 1965, Penrose introduced new mathematical notions and techniques that proved how these singularities (and black holes) really appear, thus making them a truly robust prediction of Einstein's theory, according to Vega.

“Still, this didn't lead to the immediate acceptance of black holes. This would come only many decades later, when observations started forcing astronomers to take the idea seriously,” Vega said. 

Penrose’s 1965 paper was groundbreaking not just for its result, but for the style and language it introduced to the subject, quite different from the original language of Einstein, he said. 

“It really modernized relativity and made it more mathematical. Relativists have used it ever since,” according to Vega. 

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For the small group of theoretical physicists based in UP who study gravity and black holes, Penrose’s contribution to the field is impossible to overstate.

“My research group works on black holes and gravity in general. Penrose's influence pervades every single thing we do,” said Vega. 

Both Vega and Bernardo are also saddened by the fact that Hawking was no longer around to see their work get the recognition it long deserved. 

Penrose was one of Hawking's PhD examiners in 1966, and they collaborated on work into the origins of the universe.

“Di mo mapaghihiwalay pangalan ni Hawking at Penrose. Si Penrose pinakita niya na nasa future ang singularity tapos si Hawking (with Penrose) pinakita na meron rin sa past (Big Bang),” said Bernardo. 

(You can't separate the names of Hawking and Penrose. Penrose showed that there's a singularity in the future, while Hawking showed that it is also in the past, in the Big Bang.)

Hawking passed away on March 14, 2018, after a long battle with a disease that left him paralyzed.

Both Vega and Bernardo said they have no doubt that if Hawking was still alive, he would have shared in the Nobel glory.

Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal and fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, said they were "the two individuals who have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity". 

"Sadly, this award was too much delayed to allow Hawking to share the credit with Penrose," Rees said.


Reyes, meanwhile, is thankful that a woman was among this year’s Nobel physics awardees. 

Andrea Ghez is only the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics.

“Over the course of history, women scientists have been systematically deprived of proper recognition. Huge strides have been made, in science as in society at large, but there is still a long way to go and lots of work to do to level the playing field for women and all genders and minority groups,” Reyes said. 

US astrophysicist Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), one of three scientists to win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, poses in an undated photograph provided October 6, 2020. Elena Zhukova, UCLA, handout via Reuters

The last woman to win a Nobel Physics Prize was Canadian Donna Strickland, two years ago, for her work on lasers. Before her, there were two other women -- Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1962 for her work in nuclear physics, and Marie Curie in 1903 for her work on radiation.

“As a woman astrophysicist, I proudly celebrate Andrea Ghez’ recognition and will do my part in helping make the Physics community a more diverse and inclusive one for the next generation,” Reyes added. 


Bernardo hopes to harness the attention given by the Nobel to draw focus to his field.

“Yung nararamdaman ko naman sa award ay parang perfect opportunity ito para mag-drag ng interest pa sa black hole physics at cosmology community sa Pilipinas,” said Bernardo. 

(What I felt about the award was it was like a perfect opportunity to drag interest on black hole physics and the cosmology community in the Philippines.)

Bernardo has been attending online physics forums to speak on astronomy, black holes, and the joy of exploring new ideas and discovering new things about the universe. 

The UP students who make up the National Institute of Physics' Gravity Group. Reginald Bernardo (third from right, standing, gray shirt) and Prof. Ian Vega (center, checkered shirt) have published several papers on black holes in prestigious international journals

In the online conferences, Bernardo never fails to highlight the contributions that Filipino theoretical physicists have been making in the field of black hole research and astrophysics.

Vega, meanwhile, hopes that the Nobel will draw more curious and brilliant minds into the field of gravitational physics and cosmology. 

He admits that the field, especially General Relativity theory, can be intimidating because of its “notorious reputation for the difficulty of its mathematics.” 

“For one, the calculations can be really, really long. It can also be quite conceptually difficult, because our physical intuitions tend to fail in situations of strong gravity,” he said. 

“But I think this reputation is mainly because differential geometry and topology, the language of general relativity, aren't found in the mathematical toolbox of a typical physicist.” 

Vega said this acts like a language barrier, but he doesn’t think that studying gravity is any harder than other areas of theoretical physics. 

Prof. Ian Vega of the UP National Institute of Physics' Gravity Group talks to a student.

He also hopes that this year’s Nobel Prize will push people who draw up policies for scientific research to be more open to other scientific inquiries that produce results whose usefulness may lie in a far future. 

“Its 'use' is to be found in its capacity to make us better people. To deny this is to surrender to the jaded view that humans are nothing but simpletons responding merely to our basest instincts, without need for poetry, music, or love,” Vega said. 

“As someone who has studied black holes for nearly fifteen years and continues to lead the first (and so far only) active research group focused on theoretical gravitational physics, I hope this spotlight helps us in our efforts to promote black hole physics locally and to generate our own contributions to this exciting and rapidly-evolving field.” 

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“I also hope we can show to Filipinos that we need not be mere spectators in the march of grand ideas. We're a late starter, but we can keep in step.”

The UP National Institute of Physics’ Gravity Group has published several papers in prestigious scientific journals on their research into black holes, cosmology and astrophysics. 

Last May, the Group also produced the country’s first homegrown PhD in gravitational physics, which remains one of the more difficult areas of theoretical physics. 

- With reports from Reuters and Agence France Presse

(Those interested to know more about the UP National Institute of Physics' Gravity Group, may visit its website.)