Friday, 19 April, 2019

How we got the first-ever photograph of a black hole

Katie Bouman Twitter MIT Katie Bouman
Sandra Phillips | 12 April, 2019, 13:39

Three years ago, when she was a graduate student at MIT studying electrical engineering and computer science, Bouman led the creation of special algorithms that allowed the results from the telescopes to be merged into one image.

Jessica Dempsey, another co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery circle reminded her of the flaming Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Dr Bouman was also hailed by MIT and the Smithsonian on social media.

According to Nasa, a black hole "is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape".

Heino Falcke of Radboud University explained, if immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow - something predicted by Einstein's general relativity that we've never seen before. The massive black hole in the photo released on Wednesday is 55 million light years away at the centre of a galaxy known as M87. And Bouman, whose expertise is not in astrophysics but computer science, was one of a small group of people who spent years developing and testing those methods. Though Bouman was one of several women who worked on the Event Horizon Telescope team, the majority of her colleagues on the project were men.

The effort wouldn't have been possible without Katie Bouman, who developed a crucial algorithm that helped devise imaging methods.

Bouman has since graduated from MIT and will start as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology this fall.

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Astronomers capture first-ever image of a black hole
But when the scientists fed the real telescope data back through the pipelines developed for discs, they reconstructed a ring. Black holes are not easy to capture on camera because they are surrounded by thick dust material and extremely hot gases.

More than 200 scientists were involved in creating the final image, including Vincent Fish, a research scientist at the MIT Haystack Observatory.

The data used to piece together the image was captured by the Event Horizon telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes spanning locations from Antarctica to Spain and Chile.

"Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed", the EHT postdoctoral fellow wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.

"It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all", she wrote.

At just 29, Dr. Kate Bouman has done something few others have: made history. "I'm very proud. I've been working on this project since 2007". We could have gotten just a blob.

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. Not only was Hamilton's work highly significant for the lunar landings, but also paved the way for women in science and technology.

Does a black hole seem like the internet's usual meme fodder?

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