Black hole image gives Twitter a field day


Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first-ever photo taken of a black hole - but one woman played an essential role in capturing the image.

Bouman created the algorithm when she was a graduate student at the computer science and artificial intelligence center of MIT.

"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. The algorithms they developed seamlessly stitched together the data to create the wondrous image we see today.

MIT grad student Katie Bouman was behind the algorithm which helped to image the black hole, residing in the middle of galaxy M87, some 55 million light years away.

The black hole was first theorised by Albert Einstein to explain areas in space of dense matter, where even light itself can not escape.

The image was the real thing, confirmed by test after test on data collected from eight radio telescopes around the globe.

Bouman's work has been recognized by many since the news broke, including U.S Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who congratulated Bouman for her "enormous contribution to the advancements of science and mankind".

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

"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".

"Even though we had predicted that if you had a black hole that would see this ring of light, we didn't know if we were going to get this ring of light", she told Nature. "[Taking a picture of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy is] equivalent to taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon, but with a radio telescope".

As the project's website explains, the light data can tell researchers about the structure of the black hole, but there is still missing data which stops them from creating a complete image.

"(Bouman) was a major part of one of the imaging subteams", said Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT's Haystack Observatory.

"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.

"Just before the imaging, with the M-87 data, I was not so sure we can see a shadow, even before we have the data set, so it's really exciting", he said. "I'm very proud. I've been working on this project since 2007".

The existence of black holes, caused by the collapse of stars, has been known for decades.

But last summer, when the teams gathered at the Black Hole Initiative to share their findings, the startling similarities prompted an outpouring of celebration and awe.