Prof. Heino Falcke, Professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud University Nijmegen, received a Spinoza prize on Monday 6 June. The Spinoza Prize, which is awarded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), is the highest Dutch scientific award. Prof. Falcke has been given the award, worth €2.5 million, for his scientific research on black holes and cosmic particles.
Heino Falcke studies black holes, perhaps the most mysterious objects in the universe. The gravity in a black hole is so intense that even light cannot escape. Matter in a black gap is transformed into energy with unparalleled efficiency. But as yet we know little about how black holes work.
Prof. Falcke is engaged in both theoretical research and observational and experimental astronomy. His work produces creative ideas that lead to new insights into fundamental questions in particle physics and astrophysics. For example, in a number of publications beginning in 1998, he has calculated and described how we should visualise a black hole. He based this both on theory and on observations of the super-heavy black hole at the heart of our Milky Way and its radio emissions. Then he demonstrated with calculations that, at the edge of a black hole (the ‘event horizon') there would be a ‘black hole shadow', which could be detected with a special kind of radio telescope. Falcke's research has been replicated several times and his initial conclusions have been confirmed in each case. Now an Event Horizon Telescope project has been established in America. Eventually, this should make it possible to actually see the edges of black holes.
In recent years, Prof. Falcke has focused mainly on the new generation of radio telescopes, such as the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope. LOFAR, designed and built by ASTRON, is a revolutionary new radio telescope, consisting of numerous radio antennas spread over the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, all linked to a supercomputer. Falcke was involved in the design of the telescope, and he chairs the Dutch LOFAR Astronomy consortium as well as the International LOFAR Telescope board. Prof. Falcke has been instrumental in turning the Dutch LOFAR project into a European project (Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands formally opened LOFAR as a collaborative facility in June 2010).
Prof. Falcke uses such telescopes for his research projects, such as the study of the origin of the ultra-high energy cosmic particles for which he received a Dutch ERC Advanced Investigator Grant worth €3.5 million in 2008. Cosmic particles continuously bombard the earth from space. The most energetic travel almost at the speed of light, so that each individual elementary particle has an enormous quantity of energy. One of the puzzles of physics and astrophysics today is how these particles are created and where they obtain their energy. Super-heavy black holes are among the most likely answers. Heino Falcke's research focuses on detecting and understanding this ultra-high energy cosmic radiation, using radio signatures. Some of his measurements come from the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina: the world's largest cosmic ray observatory, which was built by an international consortium in which the Netherlands participates.
The best place to detect cosmic particles, according to Heino Falcke, is the moon. So his great dream is to place a radio telescope on the moon, which could perform the measurements for his, and other, research. To make this dream come true, Falcke is working with American researchers at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Cuts in funding for space missions make it impossible to put a large telescope on the moon in the near future. However, thanks in part to the efforts of Falcke and his colleagues, a European moon mission is now being prepared, which is very likely to eventually carry the first low-frequency radio antennae to the moon. The next meeting of European Ministers, in 2012, will decide whether this mission goes ahead.
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) awards the Spinoza prize to Dutch researchers who rank among the absolute top of science, both nationally and internationally. They receive this prestigious prize for outstanding, groundbreaking and inspiring research. The winners become renowned internationally and are able to motivate young researchers. In addition to Falcke, the Spinoza prizes for 2011 will go to the communications researcher Patti Valkenburg and the theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde.
Heino Falcke (born in Cologne in Germany in 1966) studied Physics at the Universities of Cologne and Bonn. He graduated in 1992, and received his PhD, summa cum laude, at the University of Bonn just two years later. Falcke has worked as a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, at the University of Maryland and at the University of Arizona. He has previously received the Ludwig Biermann Award for ‘best young astronomer' (2000); the Academy Prize from the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (2006); a Visiting Miller Professorship at UC Berkeley (2006); a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Grant (2008), among other awards.
Prof. Falcke is ‘key researcher' at the Dutch Research School for Astronomy (NOVA) where he coordinates a network of Dutch astronomers who study the extremes of the universe and the physics of black holes, neutron stars and white dwarf stars. He is also an international project scientist at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), that designed and built LOFAR.. At the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, he is participating in the Square Kilometre Array project, a continuation of LOFAR on a global scale.
Photo: NWO/ Arie Wapenaar.