The Buchalter Cosmology Prize recognizes “ground-breaking theoretical, observational, or experimental work in cosmology that has the potential to produce a breakthrough advance in our understanding.”
Professor Niayesh Afshordi was announced this week as a recipient of the award for his paper “Echoes from the Abyss,” which examines a black hole created by the merger of two neutron stars.
In the classical version of Einstein's general relativity, black holes are surrounded by event horizons — the famous “points of no return” from which nothing, not even light, can escape. However, many aspects of these mysterious phenomena appear not to mesh with quantum mechanics, which describes physics at the particle level. This is why black holes have become “labs,” in a sense, for finding ways to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, the two pillars of modern physics.
The quantum nature of event horizons (which appear to contain all of the information within black holes) is still shrouded in mystery. One branch of research aims to unravel the mystery by studying how ripples of spacetime called gravitational waves might scatter off this quantum structure, leading to delayed repeating “echoes” during the creation of black holes, which can happen after two neutron stars collide.
Afshordi and his co-author Jahed Abedi (Albert Einstein Institute) found the first statistically significant detection of these echoes in gravitational wave data by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). The data were obtained one second after LIGO’s first detected merger of two neutron stars on August 17, 2017.
“If correct, this would radically alter the classical picture of black holes and will be the first direct signature of quantum effects in gravity,” said Afshordi.
Afshordi says he had his colleagues dedicate their work to the memories of late scientists Stephen Hawking and Joe Polchinski, both of whom championed the black hole information paradox “and much of theoretical physics as we know it.”
Winning the Buchalter Prize is an honour that Afshordi hopes will be a catalyst for their work to “receive the critical scrutiny that it deserves from the community.”