This female grad student made black hole image possible

Rodiano Bonacci
Aprile 11, 2019

Bouman's algorithm was at the heart of coordinating eight telescopes scattered across five continents and aiming them at two black holes scientists are particularly eager to study.

While she was a graduate student at MIT, Bouman led the development of the algorithm that helped capture the first-of-a-kind image, working with a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory.

Feryal Ozel, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona who was the modeling and analysis lead on the project, told ABC News the gender breakdown was "pretty dismal", noting that there were about three senior women, including herself, out of about 200 total scientists on the project.

Bouman's specialty is using "emerging computational methods to push the boundaries of interdisciplinary imaging", according to the bio on her website.

"Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed", she wrote on social media on Wednesday.

"We didn't want to accidentally see a ring just because we wanted to see a ring", she said. "The ring came so easily".

Since the researchers had to deal with insufficient data from the supermassive black hole, Bouman developed an algorithm called CHIRP (Continuous High-resolution Reconstruction using Patch priors) which was able to put that sparse data to good use by filling in the gaps and producing the final image after extensive verification and tests.

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. 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. To get an image of the black hole, you'd need a large telescope.

She is a junior member of a team of researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which is the worldwide radio of telescopes responsible for capturing the historic image.

But the team was up to the task.

As the project's website explains, the light data can tell researchers about the structure of the black hole, but there is still missing data which stops them from creating a complete image. The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world, adds light to that sound. "The goal was to see this thing that was essentially impossible to see".

Bouman did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for an interview.

She's now an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology. The talented thinker will continue to contribute to the Event Horizon team as well.

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

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