The University of Southampton

Unveiling the mysteries of Supermassive Black Holes: how a prestigious grant propels groundbreaking research

Published: 28 May 2024

The School of Physics & Astronomy (P&A) is thrilled to announce that Professor Sebastian Hoenig, Head of School, has been awarded a prestigious ERC Advanced Grant. This highly competitive fellowship, one of the largest in Europe for fundamental research, will propel groundbreaking work on the formation and mass of supermassive black holes in the early universe, a topic that could fundamentally change our understanding of cosmology.

The ERC Advanced Grant is a mark of excellence. Awarded through a rigorous international process, it empowers researchers to tackle ambitious 'blue-skies' projects with the potential to revolutionise their field. This 5-year grant provides substantial funding for:

  • Building a dedicated research team: Professor Hoenig will assemble a team of researchers, including Dr Calvin Sykes, who will help lead the project.
  • Securing cutting-edge technology: The grant will support development of powerful instruments like GRAVITY+ and 4MOST, crucial for precisely measuring black hole masses in the early universe.
  • Uncovering fundamental truths: This project tackles a critical unanswered question - are our current cosmological models flawed due to the existence of massive black holes formed shortly after the Big Bang, or are current mass estimates inaccurate?

Professor Sebastian Hoenig said:

"Recently discovered black holes less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang are supposedly so massive that it is difficult to imagine how they could have grown quick enough since the beginning of the universe. If true, this rattles the foundations of our cosmological and astrophysical understanding.

"Black hole masses are very uncertain due to observational and theoretical limitations, but with this funding I will introduce high- precision methods to measure black hole masses in the early universe and reveal if current methods are inaccurate - or if the history of mass assembly in the universe needs revisiting."

Filling the Gaps in Our Knowledge

While the existence of supermassive black holes is understood, their formation and early growth remain a mystery. Recent observations suggest these black holes might be much larger than current theories predict. Using groundbreaking instruments and techniques, Professor Hoenig's research aims to definitively measure these black holes, resolving this discrepancy and potentially leading to a paradigm shift in our understanding of the early universe.

This grant propels groundbreaking research and enforces the School's position at the forefront of scientific discovery, fostering a vibrant research environment and attracting talented researchers.

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