Published: Tue, October 08, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

The Woman Behind the Image of the Black Hole

The Woman Behind the Image of the Black Hole

"Three years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole", Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab tweeted Wednesday.

Inspired by her algorithm proposed in her graduate school work at MIT, researchers created three scripted code pipelines to piece together the picture.

Bouman says that the stars in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy are the most interesting, because they orbit an invisible object, and that radio wavelengths might show us a ring of light representing the hot plasma circling the black hole. But it wasn't until June previous year, when all the telescope data finally arrived, that Bouman and a small team of fellow researchers sat down in a small room at Harvard and put their algorithm properly to the test.

'Katie Bouman very clearly did not invent the algorithm, nor was she a significant member of the engineering team, ' another added.

"Why not name it the Bouman Black Hole, and get scifi writers slip a reference into their characters' lines?" one Twitter user suggested. Presumably, this was just one cache as 64 HDDs could only hold 5PB if they were 80TB capacity, something drive makers have not achieved yet. She also led testing to verify the images.

The black hole they captured is 55 million light years away at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy. She wrote alongside, "Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed".

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"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.

"To have to wait this long, it's been frustrating in one sense but now so incredible that we have the results", he told 7News.

Bouman was among a team of 200 researchers who contributed to the breakthrough, but on Wednesday, a picture of her triumphantly beaming as the image of the black hole materialised on her computer screen went viral, with many determined that Bouman's indispensable role was not written out of history - as so often has been the case for female scientists and researchers. It's nearly like seeing one pixel in an image (but it's in a different kind of domain). There are many women, in many places, and in many colors, making a difference today.

"As the Earth rotates, we get to see other new measurements", she continued. Many organizations credited the entire Event Horizon Telescope team who worked to capture the image and praised Albert Einstein's theories on general relativity for predicting what the black hole might look like.

Bouman is an assistant professor in computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology.

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