Meet Katie Bouman, woman behind first black hole photo

Christopher Davidson
April 12, 2019

On Wednesday, almost a year after scientists at the Black Hole Initiative in Cambridge applauded their discovery in private, Bouman and 200 other scientists - many of them from the Boston area - finally could speak about what many astronomers and others had thought impossible. Bouman continued to work on the project with the assistance of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and MIT Haystack Observatory - the last two being part of the 13 institutes involved in the EHT collaboration. 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.

Then came the giddy realization that the remarkable, years-in-the-making moment would not have been possible without the work of a 29-year-old female scientist, who has now claimed a special spot in history.

Nasa has unveiled the first-ever photo of a black hole, and we have Katie Bouman to thank for that.

"Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed", she wrote on social media on Wednesday.

Taken over five days of observations in April 2017 using a collection of eight telescopes around the world known as the Event Horizon Telescope, the photograph is alluring, to say the least. She starts this fall as an assistant professor at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It managed to capture the image that sits at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, and is 55 light years away from the earth.

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.

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At the heart of the Milky Way, there's a supermassive black hole that feeds off a spinning disk of hot gas, sucking up anything that ventures too close - even light.

"We have taken the first picture of a black hole - a one-way door out of our universe", Doeleman said.

Black holes are areas so massive they warp space and time so much that even light can not escape. But Wednesday's announcement in Washington, D.C., and five other locations around the globe is the first to display an image of a massive black hole.

The image comes after years of data collection and analysis by 200 scientists.

It was at this processing center that Bauman and her team's work really came into action.

"No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards insane to get something that wasn't this ring", Bouman said.

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