Katie Bouman: The woman behind the first black hole image

James Marshall
April 12, 2019

Bouman also created a machine-learning algorithm to refine the black hole image and has made her algorithm data publicly available online for use.

It was at this processing center that Bauman and her team's work really came into action.

Bouman, 29, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had been working on such an algorithm for nearly six years, since she was a graduate student at MIT.

That's what it was like for scientists trying to capture an image of a black hole in space.

"When we saw it for the first time, we were all in disbelief. It was quite spectacular", she told BBC Radio 5 live.

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

We get this partial information.

The image shared Wednesday, which has been likened to a molten doughnut or the Eye of Sauron or even a Rembrandt, is a composite of several such reconstructions. In a post on social media, Bouman emphasised the collaborative efforts that had made the imaging of the black hole possible.

A doctoral graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is being lauded for her pivotal role on an global team of scientists who Wednesday revealed the first-ever image of a black hole. Until today. That's when Event Horizon Telescope team, of which Bouman is a member, unveiled the first image of a black hole.

Bouman continued to work on the project with the assistance of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and MIT Haystack Observatory - the last two being part of the 13 institutes involved in the EHT collaboration. Scientists used to think that making such an image would require a telescope the size of Earth - until Katie Bouman and a team of astronomers came up with a clever alternative.

"No one algorithm or person made this image", she said.

While only six observatories are now signed up to the project, more are expected to join in months to come, according to MIT. Some people remarked that the photo is reminiscent of an iconic 1969 image of Margaret Hamilton with the printout of the Apollo guidance software code she and her team developed.

Telescopes from researchers across the world had gathered data from the vicinity of the black hole, but a sophisticated algorithm was needed to create a single, accurate photo from the massive amount of data. At that time she had no real knowledge of black holes but brought with her extensive experience in computer science and electrical engineering.

No telescope is powerful enough to capture the black hole on its own so a network of eight was enlisted to do the job using a technique called interferometry.

Bouman said in an interview with Nature that the breakthrough is just the beginning of learning more about black holes.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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