Area scientists celebrate first picture of a black hole

Mindy Sparks
April 11, 2019

Katie Bouman, 29, has devoted years to the galactic quest and on Wednesday - when the first image of a black hole and its fiery halo was released - social media users pushed for her to get her due.

Bouman has since graduated from MIT and will start as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology this fall.

After an worldwide group of scientists revealed the first ever photos of a black hole on Wednesday, the Internet quickly turned its attention to the 29-year-old computer scientist who played a key role.

Meanwhile, other Twitter users began comparing Bouman to past female hidden figures including Rosalind Franklin, the pioneering molecular biologist who contributed to our modern understandings of DNA, and Margaret Hamilton, the largely unknown MIT female computer scientist who pioneered the "software" technology that landed astronauts on the moon.

Astronomers on Wednesday unveiled the first photo of a black hole, one of the star-devouring monsters scattered throughout the Universe and obscured by impenetrable shields of gravity. In addition, black holes by definition are supposed to be invisible - although they can give off a shadow when they interact with the material around them.

A global network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope project collected millions of gigabytes of data about M87 using a technique known as interferometry. However, there were still large gaps in the data that needed to be filled in.

The glowing ring surrounding the "event horizon" around a black hole is not exactly a photo, but pixels pieced together using the algorithm.

The data from the telescopes around the world was gathered two years ago, but it took years to complete the processing of the data. For the past few years, Bouman directed the verification of images and selection of imaging parameters.

"We didn't want to accidentally see a ring just because we wanted to see a ring", she said. "We just expected a blob".

Her testing process used multiple algorithms with "different assumptions built into them" to recover a photo from the data. "If all of them recover the same general structure, then that builds your confidence".

In a Ted Talk published in 2016, Bouman discussed how black holes still have not been directly observed, citing Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

"You're basically looking at a supermassive black hole that's nearly the size of our entire solar system", said Sera Markoff, professor at the University of Amsterdam, "and, in fact, that's part of the reason we can see it even though it's so far away".

"No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the unbelievable 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".

"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. "Thank you for leading by example and encouraging girls to push the boundaries of science".

Katie said: "We're a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that's what it took to achieve something once thought impossible".

Twitterati were quick to point on her enormous contribution to the study, which seemed to be considerably less than some of the more prominent researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope project. And we owe it all to computer scientist Katie Bouman.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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