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If you cast an observational lasso into the center of the Milky Way galaxy and pull it closed, you will find a dense, dark lump: a mass totaling some four million suns, crammed into a space no wider than twice Pluto’s orbit in our solar system.
In recent years, astronomers have come to agree that inside this region is a supermassive black hole, and that similar black holes lurk at the cores of nearly all other galaxies as well. And for those revelations, they give a lot of credit to Andrea Ghez.
Since 1995, Ghez, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has used the W.M. Keck telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to see fine details at the center of the galaxy. The observations that Ghez has made of stars racing around the Milky Way’s core (alongside those of rival Reinhard Genzel, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany) have proven to most astronomers that the central object can be nothing but a black hole. But to be able to see these fine details, Ghez had to become a pioneering user of adaptive optics, a technology that measures distortions in the atmosphere and then adjusts the telescope in real time to cancel out those fluctuations. The technique produces images that look as if they were taken under the calmest possible skies.
In Ghez’s mind, new discoveries require that scientists take risks. “If you have a new idea, the thing you are going to encounter first and foremost is ‘no, you can’t do it,’” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times in the course of this project I have been told ‘this won’t work.’” Her first proposal to image the galactic center was turned down; two decades later, Ghez, now 52, has received a MacArthur Fellowship, among other awards, and was the first woman to receive a Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Black-Hole Hunter Takes Aim at Einstein, Joshua Sokol, Quanta Magazine