April 21, 2019

Black hole genius Katie Bouman takes her place among stars

12 April 2019, 07:24 | Edward Lowe

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The algorithm her team developed rendered the black hole image, which was captured by a network of eight telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope.

"Congratulations to Katie Bouman to whom we owe the first photograph of a black hole ever".

Q: What was the algorithm's role for this image, stitching together data from telescopes across the planet?

Bouman is a 2007 graduate of West Lafayette High School.

To verify what they had produced, the teams "tried to excise humans from the equation altogether", Bouman said.

"3 years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole". "Here's to #WomenInSTEM!", which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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She pointed out that "no one algorithm or person made this [black hole] image".

However, they were also aware of two main challenges: the enormous distance of the black hole from Earth, and the lack of available data to have a complete image.

The first problem was solved by using the now famous Event Horizon Telescope, which relied on the principle of strength in numbers to collect light data from the elusive black hole. However, there were still large gaps in the data that needed to be filled in.

Alan Marscher, a Boston University astronomer who led one of the teams, joined Bouman and others at a celebration in Washington on Wednesday.

Users took to Twitter to appreciate and some even had requests to make #blackhole a trending topic on Twitter. For the past few years, Bouman directed the verification of images and selection of imaging parameters.

"No one of us could've done it alone", she told CNN. We could have gotten just a blob. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them. "If all of them recover the same general structure, then that builds your confidence".

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This entire process was explained by Bouman in a 2016 TED talk entitled "How to take a picture of a black hole". In fact, the researchers had generated several photos and they all looked the same. "'Yes captain Bouman, that was the first black hole imaged by your ancestor using Earth's pre-warp imaging technology'".

Bouman said in an interview with Nature that the breakthrough is just the beginning of learning more about black holes.

"It required the fantastic talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat", she said.

"One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images", Fish said. "Do you think this is where God keeps his weed?"

Junior members like Bouman made significant contributions to the project, he added. Of course, senior scientists worked on the project, but the imaging portion was mostly led by junior researchers, such as graduate students and post docs.

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