Humanity Has Its First Black Hole Photo Thanks To 29-Year-Old Katie Bouman's Algorithm

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The first visualization of a black hole looks set to revolutionize our understanding of one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.


MIT CSAIL


The first visualization of a black hole looks set to revolutionize our understanding of one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. The woman whose algorithm helped make it possible is only 29 years old.


Dr. Katie Bouman, a former Ph.D. student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the MIT, led the creation of an algorithm in 2016. This algorithm eventually led to the visualization of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, about 55m light years from Earth, being captured for the first time.


Humanity Has Its First Black Hole Photo Thanks To 29-Year-Old Katie Bouman's Algorithm

The first image of a black hole shows a bright ring with a dark, central spot. That ring is a bright disk of gas orbiting the supermassive behemoth in the galaxy M87, and the spot is the black hole’s shadow. (source: Science News)


Bouman was a member of a team of two hundred researchers who contributed to the breakthrough. When a photo of her triumphantly beaming as the picture of the black hole materialized on her computer screen went viral, many determined that Bouman’s indispensable role wasn't written out of history – as so many times has been the case for female scientists and researchers.



The galaxy M87 sits about 55 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. Unlike the Milky Way's stunning spirals, M87 is a blobby giant elliptical galaxy. The Event Horizon Telescope just took the first image of the black hole at M87's center.(source: Science News)


The data used to piece together the picture was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of 8 radio telescopes spanning locations from Antarctica to Chile and Spain. Dr. Bouman’s role, when she joined the team working on that project six years ago as a 23-year-old junior researcher, was to contribute in building an algorithm that could construct the masses of astronomical data collected by the telescope into a single coherent picture.



Some black holes launch jets of charged particles thousands of light-years into space, like the one shown in this image from a simulation. Data collected to create the first image of a black hole, the one in galaxy M87, may help reveal how the jets are produced.(source: Science News)


Although Dr. Bouman's background was in computer science and electrical engineering, not astrophysics, she and her team worked for three years to build the imaging code. Once the algorithm was built, Bouman worked with dozens of EHT researchers for two more years developing and testing how the visualization of the black hole could be designed. However, it wasn’t until June 2018, when all the telescope data finally arrived, that Bouman with a small team of fellow researchers sat down in a small room at Harvard to put their algorithm correctly to the test.




With only the press of a button, a fuzzy orange ring appeared on Bouman’s computer screen, the world’s first picture of a supermassive black hole, and astronomical history was made. In a social media post, Bouman emphasized the collaborative efforts that had made the visualization of the black hole possible.


The Guardian


Bouman is now a post-doctoral fellow at MIT. She is due to take up a post as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology but plans to keep working with EHT.


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Thinking Humanity: Humanity Has Its First Black Hole Photo Thanks To 29-Year-Old Katie Bouman's Algorithm
Humanity Has Its First Black Hole Photo Thanks To 29-Year-Old Katie Bouman's Algorithm
The first visualization of a black hole looks set to revolutionize our understanding of one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.
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