Published: Tue, October 08, 2019
Science | By

The Woman Behind the Image of the Black Hole

The Woman Behind the Image of the Black Hole

Katie Bouman developed the algorithm three years ago while working with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the MIT Haystack Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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

The black hole was first theorised by Albert Einstein to explain areas in space of dense matter, where even light itself can not escape.

But, as news broke about the monumental discovery, Bouman's crucial contribution to the project appeared to go largely overlooked.

The image of M87 will occupy scientists for weeks, months and even years to come as they analyze it from every perspective. And while that doesn't make her any more deserving of applause - Bouman emphasizes that the project was "a team effort" - it does make her a potential role model for young girls who lack examples compared to their male peers.

This is why we need to get past the "who wrote what code" and "it wasn't just one person" arguments and admit highlighting the successes of women in STEM is so important for inspiring and recruiting the Dr Boumans of tomorrow. And I heard about this project, this idea of imaging black holes.


'The thing that kinda bugs me about it is that the only quotes I've seen from her are the usual part-of-a-team couldn't-do-it-alone type stuff, ' one Reddit user wrote. Her name trended on Twitter and a photo she posted on Facebook, of herself watching the black hole reconstructed on her computer screen, went viral. In her TEDx Talk How to take a picture of a black hole, Bouman first talks about the black hole imagined in the movie Interstellar, or the possible visuals of a black hole theorized by Albert Einstein. "However, you might be surprised to know that that may soon change", Bouman said. "One key is showing that when you go into fields like computer science and engineering, it's not just sitting in a lab putting together a circuit or typing on your computer". "We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them".

Bouman says that most of the time she's not focused on the fact that she's in a field where women are the minority.

"The new image revealed is the shadow of a supermassive black hole at the center of Messier 87, an elliptical galaxy 55 million light years from Earth".

Bouman, who is an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology explained the process back in 2016 when she was still an MIT student (above).

Her algorithm was used in the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, a joint global project which combines different telescopes around the globe into an Earth-sized telescope network allowing high-resolution imagery to be taken even in unexplored parts of the universe.

Like this: