Nasa has unveiled the first-ever photo of a black hole, and we have Katie Bouman to thank for that. In order to do that, the team needed algorithms that could distill all that noisy, messy information into one comprehensible picture.
The American computer scientist led development of a programme that made the awesome image possible.
Katie Bouman (or Katherine L. Bouman) first learned about the Event Horizon Telescope in 2007, back in high school in West Lafayette, Indiana, then pursued it as work in college at the University of MI.
So what should you know about this young scientist? "The ring came so easily. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole", announced Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard, leader of the project. In a post on social media, Bouman emphasised the collaborative efforts that had made the imaging of the black hole possible.
She is a junior member of a team of researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which is the global radio of telescopes responsible for capturing the historic image. Bouman also headed a testing team that verified the image for the world to see. Overall, studies suggest that only about 30% of the world's researchers are women.
"Computer scientist Katie Bouman and her awesome stack of hard drives for #EHTblackhole image data", Nature News writer Flora Graham tweeted with an image of the two MIT computer scientists side by side. Originally from IN, her father is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. "I'm very proud. I've been working on this project since 2007". The project, a collaboration of about 200 scientists - astronomers, engineers, and mathematicians - from around the world linked data collected from a network of radio telescopes scattered across the globe to put together the image.
"Traditionally the way you make images in radio astronomy is you actually have a human there who is kind of guiding the imaging methods in the direction they think they should go", Bouman explains. "And for data like this, that is so sparse, so noisy, where it's so hard to try to find an image, that was a unsafe game to play".
Her focus was on making sure the methods they used would show an image of precisely what was at the center of the M87 Galaxy, not just what the team hoped would be there.
Happily, it turned out that those were one and the same.
"Bouman prepared a large database of synthetic astronomical images and the measurements they would yield at different telescopes, given random fluctuations in atmospheric noise, thermal noise from the telescopes themselves, and other types of noise".
Instead, she developed an algorithm called Continuous High-Resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (CHIRP), which uses a process called interferometry that combines the signals detected by telescopes to interfere with one another. "We just expected a blob".