British astronomer Andrew Fabian has won the prestigious 2020 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics for his groundbreaking work on supermassive black holes. The Kavli Prize Laureates were revealed today by awarding body The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in the field of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, based on recommendations from the scientific organizations and societies from China, France, Germany, the US, and the UK.
“The 2020 Kavli Prize Laureates represent truly pioneering science, the kind of science which will benefit humanity in a profound way, inspiring both current and future generations,” said Hans Petter Graver, president of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, in a statement.
Fabian won the $1 million prize for his "pioneering work and persistence" in understanding how black holes influence their surrounding galaxies on both a large and small scale.
“Fabian is one of the most prolific and influential astronomers of our time,” said Viggo Hansteen, chair of the Kavli Prize Committee in Astrophysics. “His research, breadth of knowledge and insights into the universe provided the essential physical understanding of how disparate phenomena in this ecosystem are interconnected.”
“I feel very honored and it's a great privilege,” Professor Fabian told IFLScience about receiving the prize. “I'm very pleased!”
With over 1,000 peer-reviewed articles behind him, Fabian’s work has focused on some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, in particular, the connections between galaxies and clusters of galaxies with their supermassive black holes.
“I've been working on how the energy and momentum of the radiation from the central black hole affects metal all the way from very close to the event horizon out to a billion times further away, out into the intracluster medium,” Professor Fabian told IFLScience.
Black holes sit at the core of almost all galaxies. Most live a tranquil existence while others, thanks to an influx of material, begin a feeding frenzy that leads to the release of a huge amount of energy. These active galactic nuclei, or AGN, are important in the evolution of galaxies and galaxy clusters.
In the early 2000s, Fabian and colleague Yasuo Tanaka won the Rossi Prize for the discovery of a specific emission line from AGNs known as broad iron K-lines, which demonstrate the effects of black holes' strong gravitational fields. The energy released around a supermassive black hole is high enough to rip electrons from iron atoms, which results in a narrow emission line. The incredible gravity around supermassive black holes widens the emission line creating the characteristic broad line, which has been observed with X-ray telescopes.
The work to understand supermassive black holes is far from over, though. Many uncertainties remain about how the gigantic cosmic bodies came to be shortly after the dawn of the universe.
“I think the key question is how supermassive black holes form in the first place, and exactly what that timing is with regard to the star formation and enrichment and so forth,” Fabian told IFLScience.
“That whole early phase of the process is still very uncertain. Some people even have said, you can build up a large ball of gas, which collapses by itself to make a black hole of a mass of a million solar masses. All these possibilities out there to be tested. But so far, we don't really know what's going on very early on.”
Understanding black holes' origins help us understand how they influenced the earliest galaxies. Professor Fabian is very hopeful about what we might learn in the decades to come, thanks to future telescopes and technology.
“Much of astronomy is observationally led, of course, but it has to be within a theoretical context. The two sides do combine to make progress overall and we're about to see in the next decade many new telescopes come online; from the James Webb Space Telescope, the LSST (Vera Rubin Observatory), the Extremely Large Telescope, and at the end of it will have a large X-ray telescope, Athena. All of those are probably going to combine to make important steps forward, and we need to be alert to all the clues that the observations are providing.”