Black holes and the big bang under scrutiny in the Dutch Research Agenda NWA

25 November 2020

Two research projects by Nikhef and others receive support from the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA). One project wants to illuminate the mystery of black holes from all sides, the other looks directly back to almost the big bang. Both also focus explicitly on the curious  general public.

This was announced on Wednesday. For the project ‘One second after the big bang’, main applicant Auke-Pieter Colijn of Nikhef and the UvA receive a sum of 1.1 million euros.¬† Nikhef researcher Nicolo de Groot at Radboud University Nijmegen is also involved. The groundbreaking project is relying on, among others, TV presenter Diederik Jekel and the Dutch Physics Society for accessible stories about research.

For the ‘Dutch Black Hole Consortium’ project, captain Stefan Vandoren (UU) and a large team will receive 4.9 million euros. Part of this will be spent on public exhibitions about the research into black holes in Museum Boerhaave in Leyden and Museumplein Limburg in Kerkrade.

Urgent questions

The Dutch Research Agenda NWA was set up to give science a better feel for questions and curiosity in society. In 2015, citizens and others were allowed to submit their pressing knowledge questions, from very fundamental to extremely practical. Many thousands of Dutch people did so.

In total, in this new NWA round NWO honored the proposals of 21 partnerships working on subjects that are urgent according to the Dutch Research Agenda NWA. Collaboration and consultation with social parties are important in this respect. Of the total of 93 million euros, 12 million will be contributed by partners outside NWO.

Real baby photo

Colijn’s big bang project and a broad coalition of institutions at home and abroad is a real physical venture. The project wants to create an image of the universe when it was only a second old. In comparison with this, the well-known baby picture of the universe was only a toddler’s picture’, according to the proposal.

The famous Big Bang photo is an image of the remnants of the first light that appeared in the Universe after the Big Bang, some 380,000 years after its beginning. Before that time radiation could not move freely through the seething initial phase. According to models of the Big Bang, a certain type of particles, the neutrinos, could already do so.


The proposed project, called PTOLEMY, wants to measure such nuclear neutrinos. In theory, thousands of billions of them are still moving through the earth per square centimetre per second. However, their energy is extremely low. PTOLEMY is about a new method to measure such low-energy particles.

This is particularly difficult because neutrinos hardly interact with ordinary matter, such as a detector. If this is possible with the proposed detector, it will be a groundbreaking result.

Mysterious objects

In the Dutch Black Hole Consortium, countless institutions (including Nikhef) and other parties work together on a better understanding of the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe, black holes. Interdisciplinarity is crucial, suggests the proposal written by Nikhef group leader Frank Linde and others.

Scientists from astronomers and computer experts to geologists and physicists are working on better models and, for example, the Einstein Telescope gravitational wave detector to test them. This intended Einstein Telescope (ET) is an underground detector for gravitational waves observed on Earth from distant collisions of black holes. In 2015, it succeeded for the first time with smaller detectors in the U.S. Since then the Virgo detector in Italy has also been measuring gravitational waves.

Citizen science

The much more sensitive ET will possibly be located in South Limburg and has measuring arms with a length of 10 kilometers at 200 meters underground. The ambitious project has been submitted for the European research agenda. Technical companies, as well as geological and geophysical institutions such as the KNMI and TNO are participating in the consortium.

Outsiders will be able to participate in part of the work of the Dutch Black-hole Consortium through citizen science projects. In addition, special and current public presentations will be developed for science centers in Leiden and Kerkrade.