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Black hole portrait wins Breakthrough Prize for Event Horizon Telescope’s team

Alan Boyle
Black hole in M87
This image from the Event Horizon Telescope shows the supermassive black hole in the elliptical galaxy M87, surrounded by superheated material. (EHT Collaboration)

What’s $3 million divided by 347? That’s the math problem to be solved by the physicists on the Event Horizon Telescope team, who won one of the top awards in the Breakthrough Prize program for snapping the first picture showing the dark maw of a supermassive black hole.

Now in its eighth year, the “Oscars of Science” honor achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. Past winners have included the late British physicist Stephen Hawking and the teams behind the Large Hadron Collider (for discovering the Higgs Boson), the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (a.k.a. LIGO) and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (for producing a map of the Big Bang’s afterglow).

The lineup of backers is almost as well known as the lineup of laureates: It’s the brainchild of Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, with Google co-founder Sergei Brin, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Ma Huateng and Anne Wojcicki also serving as sponsors.

Each Breakthrough Prize carries a $3 million award, to be shared by the recipients. That calls for some arithmetic when you’re talking about the more than 1,000 scientists behind LIGO’s award-winning detection of a black hole merger.

The 347 members of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration will be getting somewhat larger shares after the Nov. 3 awards ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. If the $3 million is divided evenly, as planned, the arithmetic works out to around $8,645 each. (One caveat: In advance of today’s announcement, the reported number of teammates shifted around to settle on 347, and there’s a chance the tally could be revised again.)

But the Breakthrough Prize program is about recognizing the science as well as awarding the money. So, without further ado, here are the honorees — including a physicist from the University of Washington.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics: The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, for the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes. The image shows the black hole at the center of a galaxy known as M87. The next step is to get an image of Sagittarius A*, the central black hole for our own Milky Way galaxy.

2019 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics: CERN’s Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Freedman of MIT and Stanford, and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen of Stony Brook University, for developing the concept of supergravity, in which quantum variables are part of the description of the geometry of spacetime. This special award was announced last month.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences: F. Ulrich Hartl of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and Arthur Horwich of the Yale School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for discovering functions of molecular chaperones in mediating protein folding and preventing protein aggregation.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences: The University of Pennsylvania’s Virginia Man-Yee Lee, for discovering TDP43 protein aggregates in frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and linking different forms of alpha-synuclein, in different cell types, to Parkinson’s disease and Multiple System Atrophy.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences: David Julius of the University of California at San Francisco, for discovering molecules, cells and mechanisms that underlie pain sensation.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences: Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University and HHMI, for the discovery of a new endocrine system through which adipose tissue signals the brain to regulate food intake.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics: The University of Chicago’s Alex Eskin, for discoveries relating to the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian
differentials, including the proof of the “magic wand theorem” with the late mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani.

The Breakthrough Prize program also awarded six New Horizons prizes, worth $100,000 each, for notable work done by early-career researchers. Here are this year’s honorees:

Lukasz Fidkowski
Lukasz Fidkowski is a physicist at the University of Washington. (UW / Breakthrough Prizes Photo)

2020 New Horizons in Physics Prize: Caltech’s Xie Chen, the University of Washington’s Lukasz Fidkowski, the University of Chicago’s Michael Levin and MIT’s Max Metlitski, for contributions to the understanding of topological states of matter and the relationships between them.

2020 New Horizons in Physics Prize: Princeton University’s Jo Dunkley, the University of Amsterdam’s Samaya Nissanke and the Perimeter Institute’s Kendrick Smith, for the development of novel techniques to extract fundamental physics from astronomical data.

2020 New Horizons in Physics Prize: McGill University’s Simon Caron-Huot and Pedro Vieira of the Perimeter Institute and ICTP-SAIFR, for contributions to the understanding of quantum field theory.

2020 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize: UCLA’s Tim Austin, for contributions to ergodic theory, most notably the solution of the weak Pinsker conjecture.

2020 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize: Caltech’s Xinwen Zhu, for work in arithmetic algebraic geometry, including applications to the theory of Shimura varieties and the Riemann-Hilbert problem for p-adic varieties.

2020 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize: Northwestern University’s Emmy Murphy, for contributions to symplectic and contact geometry, in particular the introduction of notions of loose Legendrian submanifolds and, with Matthew Strom Borman and Yakov Eliashberg, overtwisted contact structures in higher dimensions.

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