UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, whose groundbreaking work on the origin and early life of celestial bodies includes demonstration of a massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, has been awarded the 2004 Gold Shield Faculty Prize for Academic Excellence.
The Gold Shield Faculty Prize, presented to a UCLA faculty member every second year, recognizes â€śextraordinary accomplishmentâ€? in research, outstanding teaching and distinguished university service.
Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, was named in Discover magazineâ€™s 20th anniversary issue as one of the top 20 scientists in the country under 40, who â€śhave demonstrated once-in-a-generation insightâ€? and â€świll likely change our fundamental understanding of the world and our place in it.â€? Popular Science named research published in the journal Nature as one of the top 10 science results of 2000.
Ghezâ€™s research focuses on the origin and early life of stars and planets, and the distribution and nature of the matter at the center of our galaxy. She has demonstrated the existence of a monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy, with a mass 2.6 million times that of our sun.
Since 1995 Ghez has been using the W.M. Keck Observatoryâ€™s 10-meter Keck I Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii â€” the worldâ€™s largest optical and infrared telescope â€” to study the movement of 200 stars close to the galactic center. She has made measurements using a technique she refined, called infrared speckle interferometry, and for the last few years, an even more sophisticated technique, called adaptive optics, which enables her to see more of the densely packed stars in this region.
â€śWe have found that signature in the rapid movement of the stars that are most affected by its gravitational influence,â€? she said. Twenty stars near the galactic center are orbiting ever closer to the black hole at a blinding speed of up to 3 million miles per hour â€” about 10 times the speed at which stars typically move.
Ghez and UCLA colleague Mark Morris, a professor of physics and astronomy, reported the detection of remarkably stormy conditions in a hot plasma being pulled into the monstrous black hole residing at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, 26,000 light years away. This detection of the hot plasma is the first in an infrared wavelength, where most of the disturbed plasmaâ€™s energy is emitted, and was made using the Keck II Telescope.
Plasma is a hot, ionized, gas-like matter, a fourth state of matter â€” distinct from solids, liquids and gases â€” believed to make up more than 99 percent of the visible universe, including the stars, galaxies and the vast majority of the solar system.
â€śPrevious observations at radio and X-ray wavelengths suggested that the black hole is dining on a calm stream of plasma that experiences glitches only two percent of the time,â€? Ghez said. â€śOur infrared detection shows for the first time that the black holeâ€™s meal is more like the Grand Rapids, in which energetic glitches from shocked gas are occurring almost continually.â€?
â€śOne of the big mysteries in studies of the black hole at the center of our galaxy is why the surrounding gas is emitting so little light compared to black holes at the center of other galaxies,â€? Ghez said. â€śWe now have a completely new and continuously open window to study the material that is falling onto the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.â€?
Ghez and her colleagues use adaptive optics at the Keck Observatory to get high?resolution images at wavelengths between the short near-infrared, where stars dominate, and the mid-infrared, where dust dominates.
Black holes are collapsed stars so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. Black holes cannot be seen directly, but their influence on nearby stars is visible, and provides a signature, Ghez said.
The astronomers know the location of the black hole so precisely â€śthat itâ€™s like someone in Los Angeles who can identify where someone in Boston is standing to within the width of her hand, if you scale it out to 26,000 light years,â€? Ghez said. The galactic center is located due south in the summer sky.
Ghezâ€™s research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Packard Foundation.
Earlier this year, Ghez was recognized with three premier academic honors: she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and received the Sackler Prize, an international award intended for young scientists who have made outstanding and fundamental contributions in their fields.
Ghezâ€™s other honors and awards include the Amelia Earhart Award, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, the Annie Jump Cannon Award, a Sloan Fellowship, a Packard Fellowship, the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society and the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award from the American Physical Society.
Ghez earned her Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and her B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; she was a Hubble Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Arizonaâ€™s Steward Observatory. She joined UCLAâ€™s faculty in 1994.
The faculty prize, which includes an award of $30,000 for unrestricted research funding, was established by Gold Shield in 1986 to mark the groupâ€™s 50th anniversary.
Gold Shield Alumnae is an honorary service and philanthropic organization for women graduates of UCLA whose members are chosen based on their university service and outstanding professional and community achievements. The organization serves UCLA by providing financial support, not only for the Gold Shield Faculty Prize, but also student scholarships, the Oral History Program and a Gold Shield Faculty Prize Course in the UCLA College. In addition, Gold Shield members participate actively in many areas of university life.