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The research team led by a Harvard scientist that captured the stunning first-ever image of a black hole has won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize.

The team led by Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which included hundreds of scientists from institutions around the world, won the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for “the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes,” the Breakthrough Prize Foundation said Thursday.

The prize will be shared equally among 347 scientists who coauthored any of the six papers published by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, the foundation said.

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The picture of a black hole made headlines around the world in April. The image of the fiery, doughnut-shaped object in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth immediately prompted talk of a Nobel Prize.

“The experiments that started the project over a decade ago had local roots, led from MIT and Harvard,” Doeleman said in a statement.

“From those early days, we assembled an amazing team of global experts . . . with a single goal of seeing what a black hole really looks like. The Breakthrough Prize celebrates the success of this team, which has confirmed Einstein’s theory by taking us as close to the edge of a black hole as we can go,” he said.

The image of the black hole, which is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun, was gathered by eight radio telescopes from around the world. Creating the picture involved collecting massive amounts of data and processing them in supercomputers, one of them at the MIT Haystack Observatory northwest of Boston.

A black hole is a location in space with intense gravity from which nothing, not even light, can escape. It can be created by the death of a star.

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Doeleman unveiling the picture in Washington, D.C., in April
Doeleman unveiling the picture in Washington, D.C., in April(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Breakthrough Prizes honor fundamental discoveries in life sciences, physics, and mathematics that are changing the world. Its founders include Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder of Facebook, and Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google.

The prizes are now in their eighth year. A total of $21.6 million is being awarded.

Other prizewinners “laid the foundation for non-opioid analgesics to extinguish chronic pain; established the biological basis of how much we eat and weigh; and discovered common mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders, including early-onset dementia,” the foundation said.

New Horizons prizes were given to 12 scientists recognizing early career achievements in fundamental physics and mathematics.

Max Metlitski of MIT shared a New Horizons in Physics Prize with three others, from the California Institute of Technology, University of Washington, and University of Chicago, for “incisive contributions to the understanding of topological states of matter and the relationships between them.”


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.