Two internationally renowned UCLA professors — Andrea Ghez, a professor of physics and astronomy, and Terence Tao, a professor of mathematics — have been awarded the Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The prize, which recognizes extraordinary achievements in mathematics, astronomy and other fields, is among the most prestigious honors in science.
Ghez and Germany’s Reinhard Genzel share the 2012 Crafoord Prize in Astronomy for their research on stars orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy indicating the presence of a supermassive black hole. The two, working independently of one another, have discovered "the most reliable evidence to date that supermassive black holes really exist," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced, saying their research "allows astronomers to better investigate gravity and explore the limitations of the theory of relativity."
Tao shares the 2012 Crafoord Prize in Mathematics with Princeton University’s Jean Bourgain for their "brilliant and groundbreaking work in harmonic analysis, partial differential equations, ergodic theory, number theory, combinatorics, functional analysis and theoretical computer science," the academy said. "Their deep mathematical erudition and exceptional problem-solving ability have enabled them to discover many new and fruitful connections and to make fundamental contributions to current research in several branches of mathematics... They have developed and used the toolbox of analysis in groundbreaking and surprising ways." Tao and Bourgain also have worked independently of each other.
"Andrea Ghez and Terry Tao are two of UCLA’s true superstars — indeed, two of the world’s intellectual superstars," said Joseph Rudnick, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences. "Of course, we knew this long before they were honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, but we are delighted to see that Andrea and Terry have both been awarded the Crafoord Prize on the same day."
Since 1995, Ghez has used the Keck Observatory, which sits atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano, to study the rotational center of the Milky Way and the movement of hundreds of stars close to this galactic center.
"I am really thrilled that the research done at UCLA has been recognized with this award," said Ghez, who holds UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics. "This research was possible thanks to the W.M. Keck Observatory, which houses the two largest telescopes in the world; they have enabled us to achieve the tremendous progress that we have made in correcting the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere with high–angular resolution imaging. The most recent technology of adaptive optics is now opening up new horizons and allowing us to learn even more about this black hole at the center of our galaxy — how it was formed, how it grows and how to correctly describe the properties of space and time in the vicinity of such an exotic object."
Ghez added that she is "delighted to be the first woman to be awarded this prize" and that she especially enjoys "being a role model to women science students."
Tao said that we are living in a "golden age for mathematics" and that mathematics has become much more collaborative and interdisciplinary than in the past.
"We use math all the time without even knowing it," said Tao, who holds the James and Carol Collins Chair in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. "When we use Google, for example, to find a Web page, there is a lot of powerful mathematics that we take for granted occurring behind the scenes."
Speaking about his approach to solving mathematical problems, Tao said, "If I don’t understand something properly, every single component, it really bugs me. I don’t like accepting things at face value." He also said he learns much from the feedback he receives from other mathematicians on his mathematics blog.
Ghez, who was selected as a 2008 MacArthur Fellow , among many other prestigious honors, uses novel, ground-based telescopic techniques to identify thousands of new star systems and illuminate the role of supermassive black holes in the evolution of galaxies.
In 1998, she answered one of astronomy’s most important questions, showing that a monstrous black hole resides at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, some 26,000 light-years away from Earth, with a mass more than 3 million times that of the sun. The question had been a subject of raging debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.
One reason astronomers had been unable to determine whether a black hole was at the galactic center is that the Earth’s atmosphere distorts the images of stars.
Ghez used a technique she refined known as speckle interferometry, which involves taking thousands of very quick, high-resolution snapshots that correct for these distortions. She has developed algorithms — specific computer commands based on sophisticated mathematics — and software for analyzing the data.
While traditional imaging techniques at the center of the galaxy cause the stars closest to the galactic center to look fuzzy and indecipherable, Ghez’s technique improves the resolution by a factor of at least 20.
In 2000, Ghez and colleagues reported that for the first time, astronomers had seen stars accelerate around a supermassive black hole. Their research demonstrated that three stars had accelerated by more than 250,000 mph a year as they orbited the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. They also reported, based on five years of measurements, that the star closest to the black hole had turned a corner in its orbit.