Harvey Prize for Reinhard Genzel

April 22, 2015
On 29 April, Reinhard Genzel will receive the „2014 Harvey Prize in the field of Science & Technology” from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. The Harvey Prize rewards excellence by recognizing breakthroughs in science and technology and this year is awarded jointly to the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Prof Reinhard Genzel, and the cancer researcher, Prof James P. Allison. Genzel is honoured for developing novel astronomical detectors and using them to prove that there resides a supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way.

The Harvey Prize Council recognised Reinhard Genzel for “developing many novel ground, airborne and space-based instruments enabling the tracking of the motion of stars with unprecedented precision extremely close to the Galactic centre and thus, to be the first to provide irrefutable evidence for the existence of a massive black hole at the Galactic centre.”

The centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is hidden behind a dense cloud of gas and dust, which can only be pierced with infrared light. For detailed observations of this central region, Genzel and his team built a camera with high enough resolution and sensitivity in the long-wavelength regime – a challenge as detector development for the infrared was still in its early days – and in 1992, regular observations of the stars around the radio source Sagittarius A* commenced.

The detailed astrometric measurements with the cameras developed at MPE mounted on powerful telescopes of the European Southern Observatory in Chile made it possible to accurately measure the orbits of the stars in the galactic centre. One star completed a full revolution in the first 16 years of the study and approached the central object to a distance of only 17 light-hours. This data provided compelling evidence that the central mass cannot be anything but a black hole with 4.3 million solar masses as long as Einstein’s general theory of relativity is valid. While this settled the question of the existence of a black hole in our galaxy it also strengthened the view that most other galaxies harbour a black hole at their centre.

Professor Reinhard Genzel will receive the Harvey Prize in Science and Technology for the confirmation that a black hole does exist at the centre of the Milky Way. During his stay at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, he will give lectures and meet with Israeli scientists and academicians. Material from these lectures is published in a continuing library, the Harvey Prize Papers.

The Prize is awarded annually since 1972 for outstanding efforts in the areas of science, technology, human health and peace. It was endowed by Leo M. Harvey (1887-1973), a pioneer industrialist and inventor. Previous laureates include James E. Peebles for his classic work on cosmic microwave background radiation and his seminal contributions to the understanding of the origin of our universe and Charles L. Bennett, in recognition of his significant advancement of the knowledge of cosmology through pioneering measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background with COBE and WMAP.

Genzel is the first German physicist to receive the prize. He has received many other prizes and awards, including the Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation, the 2003 Balzan Prize for his work on infrared instrumentation, the 2008 Shaw Prize, and the Crafoord Prize in 2012 and the Herschel medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2014.

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