Don’t be afraid of mistakes, says UCLA professor, fourth woman to win Nobel Prize in physics

What are the key components to snaring a Nobel Prize in physics? Be passionate. Be persistent. And make a few mistakes, said UCLA professor Andrea Ghez.

“In science, you’re constantly making mistakes,” said Ghez, who on Tuesday, Oct. 6,  became only the fourth woman in history to receive the award in this field. “You’re constantly in a space that you don’t know what the right question is, never mind what the right answer is. So I think there’s a necessity to develop comfort with discomfort to be in this realm of basic research.”

Ghez, speaking to media members via Zoom on Tuesday hours after she received word of the award, wanted to be the first woman to walk on the moon when she was younger. Now, she advises young women who are considering careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to pursue their passions and to be persistent. And don’t be afraid of tripping up over obstacles here and there.

“In life, we’re all going to face some roadblocks at one point or another, in one form or another,” she said. “Developing the ability to overcome obstacles is a really important skillset.”

Ghez shared half the prize with Reinhard Genzel, of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, for their respective work leading to the discovery of a supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy. A third scientist, Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, was awarded the other half of the Nobel Prize in physics for proving that black holes are the result of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Since the 1990s, Ghez and Genzel have separately led a group of researchers in studying a region known as Sagittarius A* at the center of the Milky Way. Ghez is credited for her role in refining a technique called “adaptive optics” to correct the distorting effects of earth’s atmosphere when one is looking through a telescope. This allows scientists to see beyond interstellar clouds of gas and dust to the galaxy’s center and has allowed astronomers to map stars nearest the center with increasing precision, leading to the conclusion that an extremely heavy, yet invisible, object is pulling on the stars.

David Haviland, member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, left, and Goran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Academy of Sciences, announce the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday Oct. 6, 2020. The three winners on the screen from left, Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez have won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for black hole discoveries. (Fredrik Sandberg/TT via AP)

Ghez and Genzel’s “pioneering work has given us the most convincing evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way,” reads the Nobel Prize Committee’s announcement of this year’s winners on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

A physics and astronomy professor at UCLA and the director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, Ghez first demonstrated in 1998 that a supermassive black hole exists at the center of the galaxy. In 2005, she and fellow researchers captured the first clear image of the Milky Way’s center, including the area around the black hole, at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Earlier this year, Ghez and her team announced the discovery of a new class of objects that look like gas yet behave like stars at the center of the galaxy near the supermassive black hole.

During a call with reporters Tuesday, Ghez emphasized that there still is a lot left to explore when it comes to space, including understanding how gravity works near black holes and the relationship between black holes and their host galaxies.

As for being only the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics — Marie Curie was the first in 1903, followed by Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018 — Ghez said she hopes to be a role model to others.

“Historically, there haven’t been a lot of women in the field,” she said. “It’s not only the presence of the women, but the level of support that’s required to get to this level of recognition. But I think the world is changing, and I think you can see that all over the place. It’s exciting to be a part of that change. I’m very hopeful for the future.”

UCLA Professor Andrea Ghez, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, talks with the media via a Zoom call on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

Ghez holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a doctoral degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also the first woman to be awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize in astronomy in 2012.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block praised Ghez for furthering society’s understanding of the cosmos.

“The awarding of a Nobel also provides an opportunity simply to celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and all the ways in which this benefits society,” he said. “A commitment to rigorous, fact-based inquiry is incredibly important at this moment.”

UCLA has now had 15 faculty members or alumni be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Leave comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.