DER SPIEGEL:We are apparently living in the golden age of astronomy.
Genzel:Absolutely. It is unbelievable all that is going on at the moment. And it will continue. Take just exoplanets, for example. We are currently experiencing a downright explosion in knowledge. And GRAVITY, our interferometer at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile is part of this explosion. We have just recently measured the atmospheres of some exoplanets. We are on the brink of being able to practice astrochemistry on planets outside our Solar System.
DER SPIEGEL:Tell us a little bit about your research. What is the importance of a black hole at the center of the Milky Way?
Genzel:We are talking here about a supermassive black hole around which gravity is particularly strong. Most interesting, of course, would be to take measurements from inside of it. That, though, isn’t possible. There is a natural limit: the event horizon. Our goal is thus to creep as close as we can to this limit in an extreme environment where everything is moving at around half the speed of light, a place where the tidal forces of gravitation are so strong that they tear everything apart. By studying such black holes increasingly precisely, we are gaining a better and better understanding as to why our Milky Way is a rotating spiral galaxy while other galaxies have the form of an ellipse. Because black holes play a decisive role in that difference.
DER SPIEGEL:Nobody is as familiar with the center of our galaxy as you are. What does it look like?
Genzel:Bright. If you were to travel to the center of our galaxy, you would be surprised by how bright it is there. The concentration of stars, relative to our neighborhood, a million times higher. And there aren’t just a lot of them, the stars are gigantic. In short, the stars in the sky would be dramatic.