SA Professor Who Helped Give The World First Image Of A Black Hole Just Bagged A “Science Oscar”

By  |  September 13, 2019

South African Professor, Roger Deane, of the University of Pretoria, was part of the team at EHT that gave the world the first image of a Black Hole. And now the laurels are coming in.

In April this year, the scientific community literally witnessed an ‘otherworldly’ breakthrough. And one of the persons who played a vital role in bringing about that breakthrough was a young South African professor who, until now, had been flying under the radar. 

But the earth-shattering discovery from a few months ago has now put him in the limelight.

Thirty-six-year-old astrophysics Professor, Roger Deane, from the University of Pretoria (UP), was part of a team of scientists that gave the world the very first image of a black hole. 

Professor Roger Deane University of Pretoria
Professor Roger Deane

That was the breakthrough that rocked the scientific community in April this year. And for the effort, he and other people who played a part in the historic feat have now won the prestigious 2020 Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics.

And if you are wondering just how big a deal this is, it’s as big as it gets. Now in its eighth year, the Breakthrough Prize is commonly known as the “Oscars of Science.”

Every year, the Prize is awarded to achievers in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics, and Mathematics — disciplines that ask the biggest questions and seek the deepest explanations. And this year’s award came with a handsome kitty of USD 3 Mn.

For several decades, the scientific community has postulated the existence of a domineering celestial body with an event horizon from which even light cannot escape. They call it a ‘Black Hole’; the densest material in the universe, condensed into a singularity, usually formed by a collapsing massive star.

There have also been more ominous accounts of the Black Hole as some kind of void into which things disappear and/or from which nothing emerges. A layman could think of it as the Bermuda Triangle of space.

While the existence of this Black Hole has never really been in doubt, it wasn’t until April this year that Prof. Deane’s team, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), gave the world an actual image of a black hole — the first-ever.

And for that, the EHT has now bagged the prestigious Prize. But that’s not all — EHT Director, Shep Doeleman will attend the awards ceremony that will be hosted in the NASA Hangar 1 in Mountain View, California in November.

The EHT comprises up to 200 scientists from around the globe and Prof. Deane was one of the youngest and more recent members of the team. But he played a key role in capturing the world’s first image of a Black Hole.

Prof. Deane’s research group worked to develop simulations of the complex, Earth-sized telescope used to make the historic discovery of a Black Hole. These simulations attempt to mimic and better understand the data coming from the real instrument, which is made up of antennas across the globe.

A delighted Prof. Deane said: “It continues to be a great honour to be part of this incredible team. The award is deeply humbling, not only because of the world-renowned previous laureates but also because of the continued global interest in and appreciation of the EHT results released in April this year.”

Even as the Black Hole image is a remarkable feat on its own, the team still has its work cut out for it. According to Prof. Deane, the EHT will now be moving on to exploring more challenging projects including “observations of the Black Hole at the centre of the Milky Way, which is about 1000 times closer than the black hole in the M87 image presented in April.”

The UP professor also revealed that the team is working on polarimetry. “We’re attempting to map any preferred orientations of the light coming from the immediate vicinity of supermassive Black Holes, which should reveal a great deal about the magnetic field structure around them and how this impacts how they feed on the surrounding hot gas,” he said.

South Africa is home to some of the best telescopes in the world, including MeerKAT, the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array. Besides that, UP’s investment in the Inter-university Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) has been a key component in the build-up towards a world-class radio astronomy research group in South Africa.

All these can be thought to have aided the work of Prof. Deane who is understood to also be working with UP’s Department of Computer Science’s Computational Intelligence Research Group to strengthen existing links between the groups and to capitalise on the opportunities for synergy between astrophysics and artificial intelligence.

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