Meet the woman who helped create algorithm for capturing black hole photo

Olive Hawkins
April 11, 2019

"Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed", Bouman wrote in a post on Facebook, alongside a picture of her in front of a laptop showing the black hole.

Katie Bouman, a 29-year old graduate student of computer science and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) designed an algorithm back in 2016 that enabled the creation of this historic image.

At MIT, Dr. Bouman led the project assisted by a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory.

"The image shown today is the combination of images produced by multiple methods". 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.

The image of M87 will occupy scientists for weeks, months and even years to come as they analyze it from every perspective.

Dr Bouman was pictured bracing herself as she loaded the groundbreaking image on her laptop. "As long as you're excited and you're motivated to work on it, then you should never feel like you can't do it", she told TIME.

Alan Marscher, a Boston University astronomer who led one of the teams, joined Bouman and others at a celebration in Washington on Wednesday.

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Now we know that Bouman's work was definitely up to the task.

The data from the telescopes around the world was gathered two years ago, but it took years to complete the processing of the data. Though Bouman was one of several women who worked on the Event Horizon Telescope team, the majority of her colleagues on the project were men. Nasa added that this black hole is 6.5 million times the mass of the Sun.

Dr Bouman told MIT News that taking the image of a black hole is "equivalent to taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon, but with a radio telescope".

According to reports, she helped develop a computer program which helped in creating the image of the black hole. No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the awesome talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.

"I think it looks very convincing", said Andrea Ghez, director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, who wasn't part of the discovery team.

Black holes, phenomenally dense celestial entities, are extraordinarily hard to observe despite their great mass. Over the years, physicists and engineers had seen orbits, galaxies and move in a slingshot whirling motion around what many thought could be a black hole. As light from the black hole hits each of the eight telescopes, the precise timing of each of these light beams is recorded and matched with the others. "We just expected a blob".

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