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Katie Bouman: The Brilliant Mind That Brought us the First Image of a Black Hole

Katie Bouman wrote the algorithms that made it all possible.

Several years ago, scientists achieved an incredible feat: Capturing the first-ever image of a ‘monstrous’ black hole. The scientific breakthrough was a collaborative effort from scientist and researchers all over the globe but one person deserves particular credit.

The jaw-dropping image of M87 is largely, in part, thanks to algorithms created by Harvard graduate Katie Bouman. Bouman worked with three other colleagues to developed the algorithm that made it possible for the image to come together.

Massive challenges embraced

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. The algorithms they developed seamlessly stitched together the data to create the wondrous image we see today.

The Event Horizon Telescope is formed from data from telescopes located around the world in Hawaii, Chile, Mexico, Spain, Arizona, and the Antarctic. Each telescope collected so much data of M87 it was impossible to send via the internet and had to be physically flown to a central data processing center.

Anxious wait after years of work

It was at this processing center that Bauman and her team’s work really came into action. They were tasked with essentially hitting go on a supercomputer that would combine the data from each telescope and finally reveal the image the world was anxiously waiting to see.

“We all watched as the images appeared on our computers,” Bouman told Time. “The ring came so easily. It was unbelievable.”

Bouman joined the Event Horizon Telescope project team six years ago. At that time she had no real knowledge of black holes but brought with her extensive experience in computer science and electrical engineering. She quickly embraced the challenge to measure and see the impossible.

Looking for the tiniest needle

Photographing a black hole is an overwhelming task. Trying to capture an object that has a gravitational pull so powerful that not only light can escape would intimidate many but for Bouman and her team, it was all part of the fun.

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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.

Not only is huge, it's also really really far away. To be exact, it's about 500 million trillion kilometers away. “This is the equivalent of being able to read the date on a quarter in Los Angeles, standing here in Washington D.C.,” said Shep Doeleman, a Harvard University senior research fellow and director of the Event Horizon Telescope project.

Image unlocks physics secrets

Now we know that Bouman’s work was definitely up to the task. It’s thanks to her, and a huge team of other scientist and engineers, that we can really begin to understand the incredible phenomena of black holes.

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The existence of black holes has long been taken for granted because of the severe effect their gravity has on the orbits of stars in the galactic core.

In the above time-lapse video from the European Southern Observatory taken over 20 years, the elliptical orbit of the star closest to Sagittarius A*, the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) that sits in the center of our galaxy, can be seen accelerating to a significant fraction of the speed of light at the perigee of its orbit.

This kind of motion could only be produced by an object of immense mass that could only be an SMBH. There has been incredibly strong evidence that black holes exist for a long time, but this still isn’t the same as directly observing the thing itself. Which is what we have the privilege of doing now.

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The image of M87 will occupy scientists for weeks, months and even years to come as they analyze it from every perspective. The image even brings the opportunity to rethink established knowledge like Einstein's theory of general relativity.

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