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by Laken Litman

October 6, 2020

Ghez is the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics

Andrea Ghez was jarred awake by a 2 a.m. phone call last October. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was on the line to politely inform her that she had just received the Nobel Prize in physics. Ghez thought she was dreaming.

As it turns out, per Nobel Prize tradition, once the committee makes its award decisions, it calls recipients immediately no matter where they are in the world. For Ghez, that meant in the middle of the night while she was sound asleep at her home in Los Angeles. “The more asleep you are, the better, I imagine,” Ghez jokes. “It took a few minutes to sink in and for me to realize, ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually happening.’”

Ghez did not go back to sleep—how could she? Plus, the head of the committee responsible for the prize asked if she could participate in a press conference with reporters an hour later. She got out of bed, made a cup of coffee, and composed a text message to her two kids. She would hit send once news was allowed to go public.

Ghez, a UCLA Bruin Masters member, is an astrophysicist and physics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She shared half the prize with Reinhard Genzel, a professor emeritus of physics and of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, with the other half going to Roger Penrose, a theoretical physicist in the U.K., for their discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Ghez says although her work has been recognized with earlier awards, she never expected to become a Nobel Laureate.

“It’s surreal,” Ghez says. “I think I spent days in disbelief.”

Ghez’s path to becoming an astrophysicist didn’t begin until the moon landing in 1969, which she says led her to think more about the universe. She loved doing puzzles. She was always good at math and planned to major in it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But while in college, she discovered her passion for physics and later pursued her doctorate in that subject at the California Institute of Technology. 

“I’ve always loved black holes,” Ghez says, adding they’re important to the frontier of understanding the theory of general relativity, which describes how gravity works and is what Albert Einstein is famous for developing. For the past 25 years, she’s been fortunate to have access to the world’s largest telescope at the Keck Observatory in Waimea, Hawaii, where she could study them. Ghez jokes that she’s aged with the telescope—which has a mirror that’s 10 meters wide, or about the width of a tennis court—because it was brand new when she first started using it shortly after joining the faculty at UCLA in 1994.

The question of whether a supermassive black hole existed at the center of the Milky Way galaxy has been a debate topic among astronomers for a long time, and Ghez was determined to find evidence. She even pioneered cutting-edge technology called adaptive optics, which has allowed Ghez and her 30-person research team to make many discoveries. Some experts, however, doubted her idea for this research.

“People didn’t believe the technology would work and that even if it did, our approach to measuring the motions of stars wouldn't be successful,” Ghez says. “The idea that there might be a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy has been floating around for 50 years. It’s not that people weren't thinking about it; it’s just that there was no ability to prove it.

“One way to think about this is that we’ve improved the evidence for a supermassive black hole by a factor of 10 million. So, it’s not just an incremental change, it's a transformational change. Very rarely in science can you move the ball forward by so much. And that's a comment on technology. When you have new technology, you can do things in new and different ways.”

When Ghez needs a break from solving complex scientific problems, her outlet is swimming. It’s how she stays fit and “keeps my head straight,” she says. Swimming is soothing. A stress reliever. It allows her to clear her mind and stay Zen.

“It helps me deal with the enormous stress of being in a highly competitive field,” Ghez says. “Swimming has been a really important way of handling and coping with all that.”

Equally crucial to Ghez are the people she’s met at the various Masters clubs she’s swum with over the years, a community that includes some of her closest friends.

“It’s a community of people that know me as a human being rather than as a scientist,” Ghez says. “It’s a chance just to be me.”

Many of her teammates ask about her work, and she never minds answering their questions. Wesley Hein, who has been lanemates with Ghez for 15 years, was proud of his friend when he heard the news about her receiving the illustrious prize. He loves to pick Ghez’s brain about science either during the 30-second breaks they have between intervals or after practice when there’s more time to chat.

“One time I saw something in the news about Mars being close to the Earth, so the next day when I was swimming, I’d go, ‘Oh, that’s so interesting about Mars,’ and she was happy to comment and answer my questions,” Hein says. “Same thing with black holes. She’s always happy to come down to layman’s level and answer with a smile.”

Ghez started swimming with Masters programs while getting her doctorate at Caltech. She’s always made it a priority to join a new club each time she was in a new city, from Tucson, Arizona, after graduate school to Hawaii while conducting research at the Keck Observatory. Masters swimmers come from all backgrounds with varying professions, which allowed Ghez to find a little science community that shares her passion for the pool. She previously swam with Jerry Nelson, who was the principal designer for the Keck Telescope, with Santa Cruz Masters Aquatics, and with Peter Wizinowich, the chief of technical development at Keck Observatory, while conducting research in Hawaii. Her time in the pool has provided her ah-ha moments.

“[It’s] an amazing place for that because you give your mind a rest, and you’re in the zone of swimming,” she says. “That’s often when ideas gel in the back of your mind.”

Ghez says she’s made significant progress with difficult problems while swimming. And her teammates can always tell when that’s happening because Ghez loses track counting her intervals.

“I’m thinking about my to-do list and what I need to pick up at the [grocery] store,” says Hein, who also loses count sometimes. “Meanwhile she’s working on problems to discover supermassive black holes.”

Sports have always played an important role in Ghez’s life. She ran track and played field hockey in high school and ran cross country at MIT. “Those were the days where you weren’t recruited,” Ghez says, laughing. Eventually Ghez decided to train for a triathlon, but swimming was her weakest link. She joined the swim team her senior year.

“I just have to laugh because, the world today, can you imagine?” Ghez says while calling herself out as the slowest person on her MIT team. “I mean it’s MIT, but you could never [join a collegiate team with no experience now]. I’m grateful because swimming has become my sport. It’s the sport that ages so well.”

Ghez—only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics, joining Marie Curie (1903), Maria Goeppert Meyer (1963), and Donna Strickland (2018)—is a rarity in her field. She says women hold just 10 percent of jobs in her level of physics, but she believes graduate schools are getting closer to 50 percent women.

“It always amazes me that there are still so few women, but things are changing,” says Ghez, who wrote a children’s book about female scientists in 1995 called “You Can Be a Woman Astronomer.” “The numbers are increasing and that’s so exciting. I want to encourage girls into science and try to do so by being a visible role model.”

One reason why she teaches introductory undergraduate physics classes at UCLA is so she can change preconceived notions of what scientists look like. She’s also making an impact that way on her Masters club.

“I can't wait for my daughter to meet her,” says UCLA Bruin Masters Coach Erika Stebbins, a two-time Olympian who has coached Ghez for 10 years. “[My daughter] just turned 10 and loves science and engineering, she loves to build stuff. Andrea is such a great role model. I’m just thrilled for her.”

Receiving the Nobel Prize won’t end Ghez’s lifelong work. She will keep going.

“This has been so rich and so interesting, and there are so many questions that have been opened up to point us in the next direction,” Ghez says. “I’m interested in understanding, well, how does gravity work near a supermassive black hole? Can we find evidence of dark matter which would be left over from early formation of the galaxy?”

Although it could take another couple of decades to answer those questions, maybe her next discovery will come while she’s swimming.


  • Human Interest