Skip to main content

New Horizons in Physics Breakthrough Prize Awarded to CfA Astrophysicist

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

Michael Johnson, a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), has been awarded the 2024 New Horizons in Physics Prize from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. This prize recognizes promising early-career researchers who have already produced important work in their fields.

Johnson shares this prize with Alex Lupsaca, a professor at Vanderbilt University, for their collaborative work to understand the photon ring, an intricate structure in black hole images, and for showing how this feature will shape the next generation of black hole imaging experiments.

The Breakthrough Prize, dubbed 'The Oscars of Science,' hosts an annual globally broadcast gala awards ceremony to celebrate the laureates' achievements and to foster broad popular support for scientific endeavors and inspire the next generation of scientists. Johnson is receiving the New Horizons Physics prize, which comes with an $100,000 award.

"I am profoundly humbled to have been selected for the New Horizons Prize, and I am both delighted and honored to share it with my friend and long-time collaborator, Alex Lupsasca," said Johnson. "The prize acknowledges the efforts of hundreds of scientists and engineers over decades to create beautiful physical theories and extraordinary new experiments to test them. And, to me personally, it is a wonderful acknowledgement of research that has been enabled through the tireless support and generosity of my family, mentors, and colleagues."

The citation for Johnson's award states it was given "for elucidating the sub-structure and universal characteristics of black hole photon rings, and their proposed detection by next-generation interferometric experiments." These substructures offer the possibility of precise measurements of black hole mass and spin, as well as tests of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The image of a black hole has a bright ring of emission surrounding a "shadow" cast by the black hole.
The image of a black hole has a bright ring of emission surrounding a "shadow" cast by the black hole. This ring is composed of a stack of increasingly sharp subrings that correspond to the number of orbits that photons took around the black hole before reaching the observer. Credit: George Wong (UIUC) and Michael Johnson (CfA)

"We at the Center for Astrophysics are tremendously proud of Michael Johnson's groundbreaking advances in our understanding of black holes,” said Lisa Kewley, Director of the CfA. "He works with an international team of leading astronomers using world-wide telescope networks and we are excited to see where his work will lead in the years to come."

Michael Johnson received his undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Southern California in 2007 before earning his PhD in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2013. In addition to his research position at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and lecturer at Harvard University as part of the CfA, Johnson is leading scientist and inaugural member of the Harvard Black Hole Initiative.

The New Horizons award to Johnson and Lupsasca is based on their research program that began with a paper they led in March 2020, which appeared in the journal Science Advances and was the subject of a CfA press release.