Telephone interview, October 2020
“It amazes me every time I go to the telescope”
Telephone interview with Andrea Ghez following the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics on 6 October 2020. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
“It’s a passion for the universe!” That’s how Andrea Ghez succinctly sums-up her motivation for becoming an astrophysicist in this conversation recorded after she heard the news of her Nobel Prize in a 2 am call from Stockholm. As only the fourth female Nobel Laureate in Physics, she describes the prize as “An opportunity and a responsibility.” Celebrating diversity in science, Ghez reflects that “Seeing people who look like you, or are different from you, succeeding shows you that there’s an opportunity.” And regarding the ‘other’ team of her co-laureate Reinhard Genzel, she concludes, “There’s nothing like competition to keep you going!”
Andrea Ghez: Hello.
Adam Smith: Oh hello, this is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, is that Andrea Ghez?
AG: Yes, speaking.
AS: Oh Hi, it’s nice to speak to you. Congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
AG: Thank you. So thrilled! I still can’t quite believe it.
AS: And having a fairly crazy morning I imagine?
AG: Yes. The best kind though.
AS: That’s good. Predictable question, but how did you hear the news?
AG: I heard the news with a phone call at two in the morning, so I was fast asleep. And I think for the first few minutes thought I was dreaming.
AS: You are the fourth female physics laureate – what does that mean to you?
AG: Oh, gosh, it’s such an interesting question of what it means. To me it’s always been very important to encourage young women into the sciences, so to me it means an opportunity and a responsibility to encouraging the next generation of scientists who are passionate about this kind of work into the field.
AS: I mean I suppose you’re very much already a mentor for people and a role model, but this will really thrust you very much into the limelight I suppose.
AG: I think that’s so important because I think seeing people who look like you, or people who are different, succeeding shows you that there’s an opportunity there, that you can do it, that this is a field that is open to you. So I think that visibility is so important.
AS: Of course you work in teams, and what does diversity bring to a team in science do you think?
AG: Different ways of looking at things. Over the years of … As I’ve gotten older I’ve had a chance to think a little bit more about the question of diversity, and one of the things that I think can be an asset is not being part of the majority gives you an opportunity to do something that’s new and different. It’s often hard to do things that are different, and if you’re already different there’s I think, in some sense, there’s an opportunity as long as you have the confidence to do things that are indeed different.
AS: That’s an inspiring thought, thank you. And talking of inspiration, what inspired you to become an astrophysicist?
AG: I think it’s a passion for the universe. I think the questions of the universe just inspired me, so I … for me it was really following my passions, my curiosity about the universe.
AS: It’s beautifully expressed. I guess we should all have a passion for the universe really. Do you spend a lot of time pondering what’s happening inside your supermassive black hole?
AG: Oh, I think that’s what inspires me to pursue the work, is to really try to understand the physics of black holes and the astrophysical role that they play in our universe. There’s so much that we don’t understand, and from a scientist’s point of view it’s really … it’s most interesting to be working in the area that we … that frontier of our knowledge.
AS: Well, once again it’s an illustration of that beautiful interplay between theory and experiment in physics. They just go hand in hand.
AG: Indeed, and I think it … and the third piece of this is technology, the technology introduces an ability to see the universe in a way that is different.
AS: It is quite extraordinary that you can peer through the murk and see all the surroundings of this object. Does it still amaze you that you can do that?
AG: Yes! It amazes me every time we go to the telescope to think about ‘here is this light that we’re capturing that’s been on a journey for 26,000 years.’ And you know, if you think about 26,000 years ago when these photons left the vicinity around the black hole it’s just … it’s rather amazing to think we can do this as human beings.
AS: Yes, and to be talking about ‘things are kind of busy at this particular moment 26,000 years ago.’
AG: That’s right. [Laughs] It is a moment that we’re trying to capture, this vast timescale.
AS: With all the attention that this is going to focus on you, yet more attention, do you think you’ll have any time left for work?
AG: Oh gosh I hope so. You know, it’s the science that is … that keeps me going.
AS: Indeed, indeed. I just wanted to ask about your relationship with the other team and Reinhard Genzel. Do you work together at all, or is it completely competition?
AG: It’s, well competition … it’s independent. And I think in a project like this where it’s very difficult there’s a tremendous advantage to keeping the projects independent. There’s nothing like competition to keep you going, to propel you forwards. And to get it right – these measurements are hard. So there’s both the aspect of somebody else is going to figure out your mistakes, and also together you might think … independently you have the opportunity to bring different ways of thinking to the problem. I really appreciate the way in which the teams have worked together – together but independently over the last two decades.
AS: Yes, I can see that. It really must keep you on your toes. You’ve probably been on the phone ever since you got this call. What would you most like to be able to do that isn’t being on the phone talking to journalists? Perhaps you might want to celebrate at some point I imagine.
AG: Yes, Yes! I would indeed like to celebrate but of course now we’re living in such unusual times that celebrations have to take … we have to be creative about our celebrations. But I’m excited.
AS: Congratulations again.
AG: Thank you so much Adam. I really appreciate it. Bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.