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UM grad helps create first ever image of a black hole

First image of a black hole
Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.
A collaborative effort, a group of scientists were able to create the first image of a black hole. Dr. Katie Bouman helped create an algorithm to do so.

It was considered impossible. It was said to be like taking a picture of a grapefruit on the moon but with a radio telescope.

That’s how 29-year-old computer scientist Katie Bouman explained an international effort to capture an image of a black hole. She finally made history Wednesday morning after she and a team working on an Event Horizon Telescope project were able to accomplish that very goal.

“Pressing 'go' on a computer program I had written and immediately seeing a ring come into focus for the first time was amazing and exhilarating. We had prepared for years, but even so it was too easy!” she said to Newsweek. “It was an unforgettable moment.”

Bouman earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of Michigan in 2011.

The black hole image is an illuminating orange halo, described to be "outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon."

In a press release, researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope project explained they were able to create the image by using a network of several radio telescopes to make "a virtual telescope dish as large as the Earth itself."

It was a collaborative effort across four teams that worked independently as part of a “blind” process to ensure the image’s final validity, NPR reported. Bouman "led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole," MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab said Wednesday.

As she explained in a 2016 TED Talk, she isn’t an astronomer, but she contributed to the development of the algorithm. This program pieces together the black hole’s images through other pictures taken from space’s “noisy data.”

"Big projects like the Event Horizon Telescope are successful due to all the interdisciplinary expertise that different people bring to the table,” Bouman said in her 2016 TED Talk. “We're a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers, and this is what will make it soon possible to achieve something once thought impossible.”

Bouman is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She will be joining the California Institute of Technology in June as an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences. She received her PhD from MIT in 2017.


Bouman left her TED Talk audience with some now relevant advice.

“I’d like to encourage all of you to go out and help push the boundaries of science,” she said. “Even if it may at first seem as mysterious to you as a black hole.”

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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