Black Hole Image Makes a Star Out of Scientist

Katie Bouman

The project was directed by Sheperd Doeleman, a senior research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

With just the press of a button, a fuzzy orange ring appeared on Bouman's computer screen, the world's first image of a supermassive black hole, and astronomical history was made. In order to do that, the team needed algorithms that could distill all that noisy, messy information into one comprehensible picture. Once the algorithm had been built, Bouman worked with dozens of EHT researchers for a further two years developing and testing how the imaging of the black hole could be designed.

The computational telescope that Bouman and her colleagues managed to devise is theoretically as large as the Earth. The scientists look for a ring of light - disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon - around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole.

That's where Bouman's algorithm - along with several others - came in. In a post on social media, Bouman emphasised the collaborative efforts that had made the imaging of the black hole possible.

Once considered impossible, the image captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) shows a black central core - the event horizon - surrounded by a lopsided ring of light emitted by particles racing around the black hole at almost the speed of light.

To verify what they had produced, the teams "tried to excise humans from the equation altogether", Bouman said. Overall, studies suggest that only about 30% of the world's researchers are women.

This is the MIT computer scientist whose algorithm led to the first real image of a black hole. "Here's to #WomenInSTEM!", which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Her passion is "coming up with ways to see or measure things that are invisible", which made her a good candidate for attempting to produce an image of a black hole, a region of space that has a gravitational pull so powerful that nothing, including light, can escape.

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How did her algorithm create the image?

"I've been involved with the project since 2007", he said.

Then came the giddy realization that the remarkable, years-in-the-making moment would not have been possible without the work of a 29-year-old female scientist, who has now claimed a special spot in history.

"Traditionally the way you make images in radio astronomy is you actually have a human there who is kind of guiding the imaging methods in the direction they think they should go", Bouman explains.

Happily, it turned out that those were one and the same. They didn't even tell their families about the results, Bouman said.

"We didn't want to just develop one algorithm".

Bouman says that most of the time she's not focused on the fact that she's in a field where women are the minority.

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