Dimitrios Pslatis, EHT project scientist, and Feryal Ozel, lead of the modeling analysis working group, are two of several University of Arizona researchers who contributed to the Event Horizon Telescope project, which was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
Dimitrios Pslatis, EHT project scientist, and Feryal Ozel, lead of the modeling analysis working group, are two of several University of Arizona researchers who contributed to the Event Horizon Telescope project, which was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

$3M Breakthrough Prize Goes to Black Hole Hunters Including UA Astrophysicists

The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, which included several University of Arizona researchers and students, received a prestigious award for producing the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes.
Sept. 5, 2019
The 347 authors of the first six published papers from the EHT project, including University of Arizona faculty members Chi-kwan Chan, leader of the computations and software working group, and Dan Marrone, one of the four leads who announced the first image of a black hole, will all receive equal portions of the $3 million prize money. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
The 347 authors of the first six published papers from the EHT project, including University of Arizona faculty members Chi-kwan Chan, leader of the computations and software working group, and Dan Marrone, one of the four leads who announced the first image of a black hole, will all receive equal portions of the $3 million prize money. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
On April 10, EHT researchers revealed the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 and its shadow. (Image: EHT Collaboration)
On April 10, EHT researchers revealed the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 and its shadow. (Image: EHT Collaboration)

Researchers from the University of Arizona are named in a collaboration that will receive the 2020 Breakthrough Prize, also known as the "Oscars of Science." Considered the world’s most generous science prize, each Breakthrough Prize comes with $3 million in prize money.

Twenty-one University of Arizona faculty, post-doctoral researchers, students and staff members were part of the Event Horizon Telescope project, which was just awarded the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for capturing the first-ever photo of a black hole.

The prize money will be split equally among all of the coauthors, 21 from the UA, of the papers published on April 10 presenting the image and the scientific interpretation of the measurements made from the data. The Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, collaboration is the name of this internationally distributed group of researchers.  Among the prize winners are UA students, staff and faculty. Among those sharing in the award are:

  • Faculty: Professor Dimitrios Psaltis, EHT project scientist; Professor Feryal Ozel, lead of the modeling analysis working group; Assistant Astronomer Chi-kwan Chan, leader of the computations and software working group; Associate Professor Dan Marrone, Professor Buell T. Jannuzi, Regents’ Professor Lucy Ziurys, UA-affiliate Astronomer Tod R. Lauer
  • Undergraduate students: Kyle D. Massingill, Chi H. Nguyen
  • Graduate students: David Ball, Junhan Kim, Lia Medeiros, Mel Rose, Arash Roshanineshat, Tyler Trent
  • Post-doctoral researchers and UA staff: Pierre Christian, Thomas W. Folkers, David C. Forbes, Robert Freund, Christopher H. Greer, Martin P. McColl, George Reiland

The result of years of international collaboration, the EHT offers scientists a new way to study the most extreme objects in the universe. Until the EHT's historic photo, the existence of black holes had only been inferred from Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and other measurements, but never directly observed.

The UA managed or outfitted with needed instrumentation two of the eight telescopes involved in gathering the data that resulted in the image of the supermassive black hole in the center of M87, a galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster 55 million light-years from Earth.

"A huge congratulations to all the Event Horizon Telescope contributors for this outstanding award," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. "The University of Arizona community is incredibly proud of the longstanding tradition of leadership in astronomy and space exploration, and it is fitting that Dimitrios Psaltis, Feryal Ozel, Chi-kwan Chan, Dan Marrone, and their UA colleagues and students were involved with this collaborative international project. The first ever picture of a black hole is a fantastic triumph of human endeavor, and I am thrilled to see it recognized with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics."

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

This year’s winners are credited with discoveries that address important and compelling scientific questions, from “Why do chilis taste hot?” and “What are the causes of neurodegenerative disease?” to “What does a black hole look like?”

Taking a direct image of the black hole in M87 is a feat that would not have been possible a decade ago. Even though the object is about the size of our solar system, it is so far away that resolving its features across 55 million light-years is like "taking a picture of a doughnut placed on the surface of the moon," according to Dimitrios Psaltis, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Arizona. 

Now in its eighth year, the Breakthrough Prize annually recognizes achievements in the life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics, disciplines that ask the biggest questions and seek the deepest explanations.

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