The internet is already abuzz with the first-ever image of a black hole, revealed yesterday by an international team comprising more than 200 scientists. The striking image, whose significance cannot be summed up in simple terms, is undoubtedly another landmark achievement, setting precedence for a new era in space science research.
The major share of the credit, perhaps, should be given to one researcher – Katie Bouman, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the California Institute of Technology. The black hole image would not have come together without the pivotal algorithm she developed, which helped compile an endless trove of information and imagery into a single, comprehensible picture. Millions of gigabytes of data sent by eight powerful telescopes from around the world could be collated together with the help of her groundbreaking algorithm, the end result of which once again stood as a blazing proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
First-ever image of a black hole
According to CNN reports, the picture is the shadow of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy.
On Wednesday, Katie Bouman shared a photo of herself on Facebook, which shows the spectacular picture of the black hole gradually taking shape on a computer screen in front of her. She captioned the picture as, “Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.”
Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.
“We all watched as the images appeared on our computers. The ring came so easily. It was unbelievable,” Bouman shared with Time Magazine.
Katie Bouman’s background
Bouman graduated summa cum laude in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 2011. She later completed her Master’s and PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and joined the Event Horizon Telescope team at Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow.
With a background in Computer Science, Bouman’s domain of expertise was as far as possible from black holes, one of the crucial aspects of astronomy, that has continued to baffle scientists for ages. However, the team considered her the best person to formulate the algorithm that would put everything together in place.
Difficult, but not impossible, proved Bouman
The earlier notion among yesteryear’s scientists was that imaging a black hole necessitates a telescope the size of the Earth. In a 2016 TED Talk, Katie Bouman had explained how she and her team were developing a cleverer alternative to capture the enigmatic black hole.
She mentioned, “However, as you can imagine, building a single-dish telescope the size of the Earth is impossible. By connecting telescopes from around the world, an international collaboration called the Event Horizon Telescope is creating a computational telescope the size of the Earth, capable of resolving structure on the scale of a black hole’s event horizon. This network of telescopes is scheduled to take its very first picture of a black hole next year.”
Katie Bouman’s contribution in scientific terms
So, what exactly is Katie Bouman’s contribution in scientific terms? A photo showing her standing in front of a huge stack of hard drives is widely circulating on social media. The hard drives contain several petabytes (1 petabyte = 1 million gigabytes) of information, as each of the eight telescopes delivered around 1 petabyte of data, states Fortune. The data was noisy, messy, disoriented and of course, gargantuan in volume. That was until Bouman’s algorithm streamlined it effectively.
The photo is already drawing comparisons with Margaret Hamilton’s famous picture beside a tall tower of books and records, containing the code that helped man land on the moon.
She credits her team for the achievement
Bouman was one among the few woman scientists in the Event Horizon Telescope team, whose years of research culminated in the ultimate achievement. Time magazine reports that she actually began working on the project during her post-doctoral days at the MIT. They had collated the data quite a while ago, but the confidential project was meant to be kept a secret till the official date of public announcement.
“It’s been really hard to keep our lips sealed. I hadn’t even told my family about the picture,” she revealed to Time.
In her latest Facebook post, Katie congratulated and ascribed her team, summarising their sincere hard work of years.
I'm so excited that we finally get to share what we have been working on for the past year! The image shown today is the…
Efforts For Good take
Women in science still constitute only 30% of the workforce. Women in space science, even rarer. Still, the hopeful part is that their numbers have been consistently increasing in the past few years. As a woman scientist, Katie Bouman is definitely a frontrunner in black hole research, and undoubtedly, her research will pave the way for more future women to delve deeper into the mysteries of a black hole.
Recently, Indian author Minnie Vaid published a book about the women scientists at Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), who spearheaded India’s first Mars mission. The book highlights how even in India, women space scientists are working away from the limelight, etching their names in distant galaxies, in the letters of light years or quantum spacetime.