Skip to main content

Sheperd Doeleman Awarded the 2023 Georges Lemaître International Prize

The prestigious award recognizes Doeleman’s work in capturing the first image of a supermassive black hole.

Sheperd “Shep” Doeleman

Sheperd “Shep” Doeleman

Photograph © Brigitte Lacombe for the Breakthrough Prize

Sheperd "Shep" Doeleman, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, has been named the recipient of the Georges Lemaître International Prize by the Louvain Foundation of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

Established in 1995, the international Georges Lemaître Prize is rewarded every two years to a scientist who has made a remarkable contribution to the development of new knowledge and the popularization of science in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, geophysics or space research. The award honors Georges Lemaître, who is known as the father of the Big Bang theory.

As founding director of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), Doeleman is widely recognized for his pivotal role in capturing the first image of a supermassive black hole in 2019.

"To receive this prize is especially meaningful — I have always been mindful that the EHT stood on the lofty shoulders of early pioneers, including those of Lemaître," Doeleman says. "Capturing the first images of supermassive black holes was the fulfillment of a decades-long effort, and I want to acknowledge the entire EHT collaboration: without a globally resourced group of dedicated researchers, these results would not have been possible. It has been a particular privilege to work with the incredibly talented team at the CfA on this great project."

Doeleman was presented the award on World Big Bang Day by Belgium's Secretary of State for Recovery and Strategic Investments Thomas Dermine and rector of the Catholic University of Louvain, Vincent Blondel.

How can we photograph the invisible?

This was the challenge facing astrophysicists who study black holes. The celestial objects have such an intense gravitational field that it prevents any form of matter or radiation from escaping away from them. Black holes can neither emit nor scatter light and are therefore optically invisible.

Doeleman took up the challenge more than a decade ago. His research has focused on how to improve the resolution of radio telescopes to directly observe the shadows of supermassive black holes. For this, he founded the EHT project, a network of terrestrial radio telescopes which, when inter-connected, make it possible to form a virtual telescope with an effective diameter equivalent to that of the Earth.

In 2019, the EHT telescope released the first-ever image of a supermassive black hole and its shadow at the center of the M87 galaxy. In 2022, the contours of Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole located in the center of our Milky Way galaxy, were revealed.

These unprecedented observations have led to a better understanding of what is happening at the center of our galaxy and of the interactions of black holes with their environment.

Black hole cinema

Despite the revolutionary achievement, Doeleman is already on to the next big scientific challenge: Filming black holes in real time.

"We are now planning a major upgrade to the EHT, which will add many new dishes to the global array by the end of this decade," he says. "By filling in the Earth-sized telescope, this next-generation EHT (ngEHT), will allow us to make movies of black holes, capturing the dynamics of matter as it spirals inwards, and giving us unparalleled access to the black hole boundary: Nature’s most extreme cosmic laboratory."

Doeleman is the sixteenth winner of the Georges Lemaître International Prize. Previous recipients of the prize include James Peebles and Kip Thorne, who were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 2019 and 2017, respectively.

This story originally appeared on the website of the Louvain Foundation. Read the original piece here.