How a graduate student helped capture the first black hole image

Rodiano Bonacci
Aprile 12, 2019

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

The world is still basking in the incredible achievement of being able to capture for the first time ever an image of a 'monstrous' black hole.

Though her work developing algorithms was a crucial to the project, she sees her real contribution as bringing a way of thinking to the table.

Bouman is a 2007 graduate of West Lafayette High School. While their discovery was made in June, it was only presented to the world by all 200 researchers on Wednesday.

"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", MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab tweeted. Her background was in computer science and electrical engineering. The scientists look for a ring of light - disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon - around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole.

University of Amsterdam scientist Sera Markoff explained, "You're really looking at a super-massive black hole that's nearly the size of our entire solar system".

The next step is to go back to the telescopes to collect and monitor even more data, said Fish. And it's thanks, in large part, to the algorithms created by Katie Bouman.

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

They took the "sparse and noisy data" that the telescopes spit out and tried to make an image. For the past few years, Bouman directed the verification of images and selection of imaging parameters. In an interview with CNN, she said, "No one of us could've done it alone".

We get this partial information. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them.

The results of the algorithms were then analysed by four separate teams to build confidence in the veracity of their findings.

When the first-ever image was unveiled Wednesday, it prompted overwhelming excitement online, not only for science but also for the scientist behind it.

But atmospheric disturbance and the spareness of the measurements meant "an infinite number of possible images" could explain the data, Bouman said. "Just think about the photos you take with your camera phone - they have certain properties". All they need are more telescopes to hopefully capture sharper images of this mysterious object. She has been working on the project while a post-doctoral fellow at MIT and will soon start a job as an assistant professor at Caltech.

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