Thursday, 25 April, 2019


Scientist superstar Katie Bouman designed algorithm for black hole image

Image of a black hole at the center of Messier 87 galaxy 55m light years from Earth | Courtesy Reuters Image of a black hole at the center of Messier 87 galaxy 55m light years from Earth | Courtesy Reuters
Kristine Garrett | 12 April, 2019, 13:40

Katie Bouman smiles while the image of the black hole is processed.

But, as news broke about the monumental discovery, Bouman's crucial contribution to the project appeared to go largely overlooked. EHT explained the light gives an "indication of the structure of the black hole", but not the whole story. For Katie Bouman, it was all that, plus the culmination of three years of work, the realization of a goal that scientists thought to be impossible, and the event that will launch her into history.

"It still amazes me that although I began this project with no background in astrophysics, what we have achieved in this unique collaboration could result in the very first images of a black hole", she said. Together, the team utilized enough image data to fill thousands of hard drives, seamlessly stitching together photos from eight telescopes - located in Hawaii, Chile, Mexico, Spain, Arizona, and the Antarctic - to create the image released today.

"It has been truly an honour, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all".

To put the challenge into perspective, the black hole that was captured, known as M87 is larger than the size of our entire solar system, it's about three million times the size of the Earth.

The existence of black holes has always been taken for granted because of the severe effect their gravity has on the orbits of stars in the galactic core. In fact, it made her well-suited to this particular project, one that involved capturing an image of an object so powerful that nothing could escape - not even the light needed for a photograph. Light gets bent and twisted around by gravity in a freakish funhouse effect as it gets sucked into the abyss along with superheated gas and dust. These astronomical wonders have captivated our imagination ever since, and for the longest time, all we had to visualize them were artistic impressions.

"Although, we've never actually taken a picture of one [black hole] before".

How did her algorithm create the image? Among other things, the announcement marked the moment when people like Bouman could finally share their secret work with the world. "What I did was brought the culture of testing ourselves", she says.

The picture was made with equipment that detects wavelengths invisible to the human eye, so astronomers added colour to convey the ferocious heat of the gas and dust, glowing at a temperature of perhaps millions of degrees.

The team faced the impossible task of figuring out a way to combine the masses of data from the telescopes that formed the Event Horizon Telescope network.

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