Why the world is talking about Katie Bouman

Pablo Tucker
April 11, 2019

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.

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

Last June, once the data finally arrived, Bouman's team essentially hit the go button, anxiously awaiting the answer to a question the scientific community has had for years: "could we produce an image of a massive black hole?"

In the image released Wednesday, the black hole is outlined by an orange ring that is actually emission from hot gas swirling near its event horizon.

Katie Bouman reacting to the first real image of a black hole Wednesday. Black holes have extremely strong gravity, meaning anything that enters its event horizon, or point of no-return is swallowed up, according to NASA. "We would never be able to see into the center of our galaxy in visible wavelengths because there's too much stuff in between", Bouman told MIT News in 2016.

"Bouman prepared a large database of synthetic astronomical images and the measurements they would yield at different telescopes, given random fluctuations in atmospheric noise, thermal noise from the telescopes themselves, and other types of noise".

"It was incredible to see that first ring, but it was even more unbelievable that we all produced the ring", said Bouman, who is joining the faculty at the California Institute of Technology this year. 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.

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

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.

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

The data captured from each telescope was stored on hard drives and then flown to three central processing centres in Boston, US, and Bonn in Germany.

"Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed", she wrote in the caption to the Facebook post.

The existence of black holes has always been taken for granted because of the severe effect their gravity has on the orbits of stars in the galactic core.

If that's not challenging enough, the black hole is more than 500 million trillion kilometers away. As light from the black hole hits each of the eight telescopes, the precise timing of each of these light beams is recorded and matched with the others. It was probably the most exciting moment I've ever had with the project. "We just expected a blob".

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