Startups, Black Holes, and Nobel Prizes

Dive into the search for black holes and how today's new Nobel prize winner Dr. Andrea Ghez changed the search by using the right "lens"

Exciting news today as Dr. Andrea Ghez has just won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her pioneering work on black holes. As a professor of astronomy at UCLA, she has spent the last 25 years trying to understand black holes and determine if one sits at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. A few questions emerge - if black holes are black, how can you possibly see one? If a gigantic black hole (4 million times the mass of our sun) is in our own galaxy/backyard, how could we just now be finding out about it? And what is this weird image??

Read our past Ubiquity blog post below that features the work of new Nobel Laureate Andrea Ghez and how the search for black holes mirrors a startup founder’s search for product/market fit.

Dr. Ghez is only the 4th woman to ever win Nobel Prize in Physics. Among the other 3 past female winners is Marie Curie (part of the reason my daughter's name is Anavi Marie Nagaraj).

Using the Right Lens: What Startup Problem-Solving and Finding Black Holes Have in Common

Entrepreneurs face many challenges that seem impossible to surmount, so I offer this reminder:

The way you view a problem can make you blind to its solution or bring the answer into clear focus.

Let me use an analogy from a totally different field: the hunt for black holes in space. (If you didn’t already know that I’m a space nerd, now you do!)

When I was a kid in the ’80s, we didn’t know whether black holes were real things or just a mathematical curiosity first proposed in 1916 by Karl Schwarzschild. They were theorized because an object’s escape velocity grows with the square root of its mass divided by radius. It made sense that there ought to be objects with M/r so large that their escape velocity exceeded a very special number, the universe’s speed limit (aka the speed of light, c = 299,792,458 m/s; aka the fund size of Ubiquity Ventures I = $29,979,245.80). However, none were found. I realize that black holes are “black”, but scientists had long ago come up with ways to indirectly detect their presence and had come up empty-handed.

Scientists and astronomers resigned themselves to thinking that perhaps black holes were just an idea or impossible to find.

When astronomers pointed the world’s best telescopes at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, this is what they saw. It was a fairly blurry photo and fairly static. It’s hard to fault them for seeing very little relevant to the hunt for black holes.

Image source: UCLA Galactic Center Group / W. M. Keck Observatory Laser Team

However, we now know that black holes are real and that they are everywhere. More specifically, there is a supermassive black hole at the center of nearly every galaxy! So how could we have missed something so obvious in our searches, including the black hole about 4 million times as massive as our Sun and sitting right in our “backyard” (at the center of the Milky Way galaxy)!

The reason we couldn’t see the answer right in front of us is because we weren’t using the right lens.

It all changed when they started looking at the problem differently. In the 1990’s, astronomers and scientists developed a method of making images of space much clearer. This technology measured the distorting effect of air turbulence (directly above the telescope) on the images of stars, and attempted to adapt for it, hence the name “Adaptive Optics”.

Have you ever seen a laser shoot into the sky from an observatory? That’s adaptive optics in action, shooting a laser to create an artificial guide star high in the atmosphere and then measuring what it looks like from the ground to compute exactly how the intervening atmosphere is disturbing images.

Image source: Shane Telescope at Lick Observatory, CA. link

Because of this incredible innovation, here is what we now see when we point a telescope at the center of the Milky Way (pause here to watch the animation for before/after the use of adaptive optics):

Image source: UCLA Galactic Center Group / W. M. Keck Observatory Laser Team — link

That is a snapshot in time. Now if we use adaptive optics and take many photos over many years, the invisible becomes visible as this movie of our galaxy’s center makes clear:

Image source: UCLA Galactic Center Group / W. M. Keck Observatory Laser Team (central 0.5 arcsec of galactic center) — Link

Watch closely. Individual stars each race forward for months on end (the date of each image is in the top right), and then completely reverse course as they loop around a black, empty spot (marked by a five-point symbol). Lo and behold, we have found the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy! Once we had this new way of looking at the world, the solution was crystal clear.

For startup founders, the takeaway is this: impossible problems become solvable when viewed through the right lens.

Approaching your own problem from another angle or seeing it through a different lens might just be your solution.

*Thanks to Astronomy Professor Alex Filippenko for help with this post.

Are you a startup founder in the smart hardware or machine learning sectors, or even just really into space? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment or get in touch with Ubiquity Ventures.

Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications.