Katie Bouman, The 29-Year-Old Girl Harvard Graduate Behind The World’s First Black Hole Image

Katie Bouman has joined the short list of incredible women researchers has earned plaudits worldwide for helping develop the algorithm that created the world’s first black hole photo possible.

April 10, 2019, saw the world getting its first ever image of a black hole Captured by eight linked telescopes, together called the (EHT)Event Horizon Telescope, the photo showing a flaming black and yellow ring was a breakthrough in science research and human advancement. While there have been artist renditions and such of black holes in the past, we hadn’t got an actual photograph of a black hole.

But now, thanks to the algorithm created by 29-year-old Katie Bouman from Harvard University, who was also an important member of the EHT team, we do.

Bouman worked for years, collecting data which could be ultimately pieced together to create the black hole image

About the world’s first image of a supermassive black hole

The viral image of the black hole is merely the centre of the entire image showing the centre of the galaxy M87 which is about 53 million light years from Earth. The tiny black portion at the centre of the full image below is 6.5 billion times more massive than our own Sun.

Seeing the photo on a computer or mobile screen doesn’t do justice to the sheer scale of the supermassive black hole being shown.

Being able to see this photo of the black hole is like “being able to read the date on a quarter in Los Angeles, standing here in Washingon DC,” as per the director of the Event Horizon Telescope project and a senior research fellow at Harvard, Shep Doeleman.

This supermassive black hole is so humungous that the ‘event horizon’ or the point-of-no-return area around it — from where light and matter start falling into the black hole — is as big as our solar system.

Black holes were theorised by Einstein more than a century ago and were later on confirmed as real. Supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin though we know that smaller black holes are formed due to collapsed stars.

How did Katie Bouman create this image?

The data to create the black hole image was collected by eight radio telescopes from around the world — located in Hawaii, Chile, Mexico, Spain, Arizona, and Antarctica — and there was so much that it couldn’t be sent over the internet.

Hundreds of terabytes of data were flown in by planes to form the image of the black hole. Though the Event Horizon Telescope had gathered the data two years ago, it took 200 scientists working with supercomputers to finally compile the full picture.

The image of Bouman posing with the unimaginable 5 petabytes of data (1 petabye = 1000 terabytes) needed for the black hole photo, originally posted by BBC in an article of theirs, went viral on Reddit.

Bouman worked with a team of three other researchers to develop the algorithms that made the full black hole image possible. Since the data arrived last June, Bouman and her fellow researchers weren’t sure they would be able to complete the task of piecing together the image.

But they did succeed, and something that was impossible to see is now possible.

Watching the final black hole photo come together was an overwhelming experience as the photo uploaded by Katie Bouman on her Facebook account so clearly shows.

Bouman didn’t know much about back holes just 6 years ago

When Bouman joined the EHT team six years ago with a background in computer science and electrical engineering, she hardly knew anything about black holes.

But because she wasn’t bounded by any previous ideas, it made her a great fit for the project which asked for a photograph of something so powerful that even light cannot escape from it – not even the light required to get a photograph.

Bouman will soon start her new job as an assistant professor at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) while also continuing her work on the Event Horizon team. As she said in an interview, may be one day, we might even get videos of black holes instead of just images.

This achievement is so spectacular an event in the world of science, considering that only 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women, that like some scientists we too wouldn’t be surprised if Katie Bouman wins a Nobel Prize for it!

Watch Katie Bouman explain in a TedTalk how to take the image of a black hole:

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Sumit Sharma

Sumit Sharma is Co-founder of CourtesyFeed. He is a Passionate Programmer, Digital Marketing Expert and Blogger.
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