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Prestigious Breakthrough Prize for first picture of black hole

They are often referred to as ‘The Oscars of the Natural Sciences’: the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics. This year, the prize for physics went to the Event Horizon Telescope team, which took the first-ever picture of a black hole. Four Leiden astronomers were also a member of this team.

3 million

In April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team presented the first photo of a black whole ever with a lot of spectacle. It photographed the natural phenomenon with the Event Horizon Telescope, a worldwide network of eight radio telescopes. All 347 scientists of the team get an equal share in the 3 million dollars of prize money. Remo Tilanus of the Allegro Institute of the Leiden Observatory is project manager of the EHT and the associated ‘BlackHoleCam’ project. Since 2013 he is responsible for the technical realization of the EHT and the preparation and coordination of the observations. Besides Tilanus, from Leiden also Huib Jan van Langevelde, Wilfried Boland and Ciriaco Goddi have been awarded (see box).

The Leiden scientists

Remo TilanusAstronomer: Project Manager of the EHT and the associated ‘BlackHoleCam’ project (ERC Synergy grant) and lead of the Array Coordination and Readiness working group.

Huib Jan van LangeveldeProfessor of Galactic Radio Astronomy, employed by JIVE, the European centre for VLBI in Dwingeloo: one of the leads of the EHT publication workgroup.

Wilfried BolandDirector of operational management Leiden Observatory and former executive director of NOVA: former member of the EHT board.

Ciriaco Goddi Astronomer: BlackHoleCam’s Project Scientist and secretary of the EHT Science Council. He was also in charge of the data processing for ALMA, the most important telescope in the entire network.

Black hole in action

‘The project has not stopped with the publication of the first photo’, Tilanus says. ‘Not all results have been published yet.’ The team is currently working on a photo of the black hole in the centre of our own Milky Way. They also plan to map the magnetic fields of the first black hole, M87. ‘We think that these fields are launching an enormous jet stream that comes out of the centre of the black hole like a light beam out of a lighthouse.’ Over the next year, improved pictures taken by more telescopes may even show the origin of the jet stream.

‘We are hoping for new funds to continue our research’, says Tilanus. ‘We also hope to add new telescopes to the network, such as in Africa. Another big challenge would be to make film recordings from a black hole. We expect the rotating gas disc around the black hole and the jet stream anchored in it to change over a time scale of just a few days. We’d like to record that!’

The Breakthrough Prizes

Each year, three Breakthrough Prizes are awarded for the most important breakthroughs in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics. The foundation that awards the prizes was founded by the Russian physicist, businessman and billionaire Yuri Milner. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is also a member of the founding committee. Each prize comprises an amount of 3 million dollars, more than twice as much as there is to win at a Nobel Prize. Not only experimental physics has a chance of winning a Breakthrough Prize, but also theoretical research is eligible.

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