Meet Dr. Katie Bouman, the brain behind the algorithm that uncovered the first image of a black hole

Dr. Katie Bouman had already started working on the code to retrieve black holes from scattered telescopic data three years ago, when she was in grad school at MIT


                            Meet Dr. Katie Bouman, the brain behind the algorithm that uncovered the first image of a black hole

Although Dr. Katie Bouman reacted humbly after she shot to fame this week, she is only getting due credit for her extensive graduate school work that helped lead to the first real image of a black hole on Wednesday.

Bouman was responsible for creating an algorithm during grad school at MIT, which ultimately made the image acquisition possible. The talented thinker is now set to begin teaching as an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) this fall.

The 29-year-old computer scientist, who led the development of a computer program that made the breakthrough possible, is now earning plaudits worldwide for her landmark achievement.

The stunning image, which shows a hazy ring of dust and gas more than 500 million trillion miles from Earth, was released by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration on Wednesday. This was the manifestation of a longtime endeavor of Bouman that she previously thought impossible to achieve.

Bouman was pictured loading the image on her laptop as she braced herself for the pathbreaking moment. "Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed," she wrote alongside a Facebook post.



 

 

The feat was not easy. Bouman was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when she started developing the algorithm three years ago. With assistance by a team of scientists from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory, Bouman led the historical project to its fruition this week.

It was Bouman's code that rendered the black hole image after it was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a network of eight linked telescopes placed strategically in different parts of the world.

She became an international sensation within hours of the milestone photo's release, with her name trending across every social media platform and garnering applause from the most elite institutions in the world, including MIT and the Smithsonian.

MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab wrote, "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. Today, that image was released." However, the modest genius insisted the team that helped her deserves equal credit for the achievement.



 

 

More than 200 scientists were part of the team that successfully captured the image using telescopes in locations ranging from Chile right up to the Antarctic. In a conversation with CNN, Bouman said, "No one of us could've done it alone. It came together because of lots of different people from many different backgrounds."

The image of the black hole, which measures 40 billion miles in diameter, or three million times the size of our blue planet, was scanned over a period of 10 days in the neighborhood Messier 87 galaxy system.

Although the black hole is "larger than the size of our entire Solar System", it is "unseeable" to the naked eye, according to Professor Heino Falcke, of Radboud University, Netherlands, who first proposed the experiment.



 

 

But how did Dr. Bouman's algorithm exactly create the image?

In layman's terms, her team developed a bunch of code that successfully converted data collected by the telescope into the striking photo that stunned the world. Using a technique called interferometry, a special arrangement of eight telescopes was set up to capture the black hole as no single telescope is powerful enough to get the job done. Over hundreds of hard drives that collected the data were eventually shipped to central processing centers in Boston, US, and Bonn, Germany, to recreate the image in the visible spectrum.

Bouman's method was instrumental in distilling all that noisy, messy information into one comprehensible picture. In the testing process with she spearheaded, multiple algorithms with "different assumptions built into them" attempted to create a photo from the scattered data. Following the procedure, the results of the algorithms were separately analyzed by four different teams so that the veracity of their findings were well founded and validated across the board.

"We're a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers, and that's what it took to achieve something once thought impossible," Bouman told BBC.



 

What's next for the overnight celebrity? She is set to do what she does best and continue to contribute to the Event Horizon team while teaching at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) at the same time.

Following the groundbreaking success, Event Horizon has plans to add new telescopes to the network. This would help boost the infrastructure's ability and eventually enable it to create videos of black holes rather than just stills.

Speaking of encouraging women to enter STEM and research fields, Bouman told Time that she tries not to focus on the fact that she's working in a field where women are in the minority. "But I do sometimes think about it. How do we get more women involved?" she said. "One key is showing that when you go into fields like computer science and engineering, it’s not just sitting in a lab putting together a circuit or typing on your computer."