Meet the 2016 Winners of the £480,000 Crafoord Prize

By Esther Inglis-Arkell on at

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded its prestigious Crafoord Prize, honouring three scientists who have made outstanding achievements in black hole physics and a special kind of geometry.

Established in 1980 by industrialist Holger Crafoord, the Crafoord Prize recognises outstanding achievement in the sciences. The prize goes to winners in astronomy and mathematics, geosciences, biosciences, and polyarthritis, the disease which Holger Crafoord suffered from. The award is given for only one subject per year — the awards committee cycles through the subjects every four years — and so the honour is especially great. It also comes with a hefty 6,000,000Kr (£488k) check.

This year, the prize for astronomy is shared by two scientists who helped us understand the workings of black holes. The first is New Zealand mathematician Roy Kerr. Scientists could describe the geometry of spacetime around a non-rotating black hole in 1915, when Albert Einstein introduced his general theory of relativity. But the geometry of spacetime around a black hole in motion — specifically around a rotating black hole — was tougher to describe. Yet astronomers believed that since the original stars rotated, they should continue to do so even after collapsing into black holes. Kerr found the solution in Einstein’s equations in 1963 with the Kerr Metric.

Although nothing (not even light) can escape a black hole once it passes the event horizon — a point of no return — black holes do shoot out powerful jets of energetic particles as a result of their rotational energy. Sharing the astronomy prize with Kerr is British astrophysicist Roger Blandford, who described how these jets occur. Gas falls toward them, heating as it descends, and some of its mass converts into energy. These are the electrically charged jets of particles observed shooting away from black holes.

The prize for mathematics goes to Russian mathematician Yakov Eliashberg, for symplectic geometry. The earliest forms of symplectic geometry were used to simplify classical mechanics — like Newton’s description of the moon orbiting the Earth. As our understanding of motion broadened, so did the scope of symplectic geometry. Eliashberg, who started work in the 1980s, discovered a new twist. There are times when the reality of an object, its form and motion, can be surprisingly flexible. It can be bent and twisted without losing its proportions. At other times the object remains rigid. So far, mathematicians don’t know the exact boundary between rigidity and flexibility, but thanks to Eliashberg we know they’re both possible.

The award ceremony will be held in May at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Our sincerest congratulations to the laureates. [The Crafoord Prize in Astronomy and Mathematics 2016]

Image: XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA

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