Deciphering the universe: German astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel bagged the Balzan Prize for outstanding scientific achievement this year. He tells Swiss News about his fascinating work.

AuteurHeddema, Renske
Fonction Feature

The International Balzan Foundation based in Zurich awards prestigious prizes for outstanding scientific achievements. This year, the German astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel was one among the tour laureates who received the Balzan Prize--worth a million Swiss francs--for his cutting-edge work in infrared astronomy, including evidence of a massive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way.

The award-distributing ceremony was held at the Federal Parliament Buildings in Bern this time. Swiss federal councillor Ruth Metzler handed over the prizes to the winners.

Professor Genzel tells us about his fascination with research, touching the edges of the universe.

Swiss News: You study the secrets of the galaxy. Did science fiction interest you as a child?

Reinhard Genzel: No, it was the excitement of physics, which my father transferred to me, that inspired me. Initially, I wanted to become an archaeologist. Archaeology really was my first love. But then my father opened the world of science to me. He was a hardcore experimentalist, working as a physicist for the Max Planck Society, just as I do now. From the beginning, he was more a teacher to me than my teachers at school. We did experiments together at home; he helped me build equipment to look at spectra of gases and so on. I obviously also got the chance to go into his laboratory and see how experimental physics was done. I found that all very exciting. Later on, in choosing my field of science, my dad gave me invaluable advice.

What was the status of astronomy when you started your career?

Germany had little to contribute to physical astronomy--if you exclude the counting of stars, which bad been practiced on a large scale in the 19th century.

When I graduated, the Max Planck Institute had just been founded and a 100-metre tall telescope in the Eiffel Mountains--the largest in the world--had just started operations. It opened up new areas (as it) had great sensitivity, and allowed greater precision in observation. The telescope helped us determine molecules in interstellar space, where it is cold and dust particles absorb radiation.

We operated this telescope in conjunction with others in Russia and the US. In radio astronomy, you can lake telescopes that are far apart and simulate a telescope that is gigantic in dimensions.

In doing so, we created an incredible resolution, actually resolving the structures of molecules in outer space. It was a period of tremendous opportunities. Later I got...

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