How do you create an algorithm to make it possible to photograph — for the first time ever — a black hole 54 million light years from Earth?
You’d have to ask Katie Bouman, a post-doctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
This astronomically hard task has resulted in providing this out-of-this-world photograph, which has been displayed in our planet’s media.
After the image was unveiled to the world on April 10, Bouman began earning accolades from fellow scientists, historians and politicians for her stellar achievement.
“Given the extent of the use of ‘historic’ today, we are unashamedly and legitimately jumping on the #BlackHolePicture bandwagon. Congratulations Dr. Bouman!” the Royal Historical Society wrote on social media.
Bouman started working on the algorithm as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying electrical engineering and computer science.
According to The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino:
She was one of about three dozen computer scientists who used algorithms to process data gathered by Event Horizon Telescope project, a worldwide collaboration of astronomers, engineers and mathematicians.
Telescopes from around the world collected high-frequency radio waves from the vicinity of Messier 87, a super massive black hole 54 million light years away. But atmospheric disturbance and the sparseness of the measurements meant “an infinite number of possible images” could explain the data, Bouman said. Well-designed algorithms had to crunch through the chaos.
When the first-ever image was unveiled April 10, it prompted overwhelming excitement online, not only for science but also for the scientists behind it.
“I am inspired by Katie Bouman,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, wrote on Twitter.
The photograph gives humanity a glimpse of a bizarre celestial object that has captivated our imagination for more than a century.
The long-anticipated photo, in which a black hole’s silhouette is visible as a dark patch surrounded by a bright ring, was shown in a series of press briefings held simultaneously in Washington D.C. and five other cities around the world.
The photo is the product of observations made in April 2017 by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international consortium that linked eight radio observatories around the world to create a single, Earth-size telescope with enough magnifying might to see what until now has been unseeable.
“Here it is,” Sheperd Doeleman, a Harvard astronomer and project director of the EHT, said as he revealed the image at the Washington briefing. “This is the strongest evidence that we have to date for the existence of black holes.”
The black hole is billions of times more massive than our sun. It is nearly 25 billion miles across.