Published: Fri, April 12, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

The First Picture Of A Black Hole Was Taken By A Woman

The First Picture Of A Black Hole Was Taken By A Woman

But when the mind-bending breakthrough finally came nearly a year ago, the discovery had to stay a secret.

"Why not name it the Bouman Black Hole, and get scifi writers slip a reference into their characters' lines?" one Twitter user suggested.

She led the project alongside a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the MIT Haystack Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"3 years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole".

First came the breathtaking image, the first one to ever show a black hole, in a galaxy about 55 million light-years from Earth.

Does a black hole seem like the internet's usual meme fodder? But it wasn't until June a year ago, when all the telescope data finally arrived, that Bouman and a small team of fellow researchers sat down in a small room at Harvard University and put their algorithm properly to the test. Finally, even after exhaustive efforts to prove themselves wrong, the discovery stood.

"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".

The black hole image, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) - a network of eight linked telescopes - was rendered by Dr Bouman's algorithm. 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.

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The black hole is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun and is in a galaxy called M87. 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.

The image of the black hole was revealed during a live-streamed press conference.

The data they captured was stored on hundreds of hard drives that were flown to central processing centres in Boston, US, and Bonn, Germany.

The scientists didn't talk to other teams about the details of their work as they analyzed their data.

But last summer, when the teams gathered at the Black Hole Initiative to share their findings, the startling similarities prompted an outpouring of celebration and awe.

Bouman starts teaching as an assistant professor at California Institute of Technology in the fall.

To verify what they had produced, the teams "tried to excise humans from the equation altogether", Bouman said. "But we kept getting the ring". They developed new scripts or pipelines and trained those pipelines on data for discs; these astronomical structures don't have any holes. And it's thanks, in large part, to the algorithms created by Katie Bouman.

"It's not that common in science that you can get such a clean confirmation of such a theoretical explanation", Marscher said.

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