How do you take a photograph of something that’s located 54 million light years away, has a mass 6.5 billion times that of our sun and doesn’t allow any light to escape?
It’s a question that then-MIT grad student Katie Bouman grappled with in an interview with the university’s news office back in June 2016.
“A black hole is very, very far away and very compact,” Bouman told MIT News. She compared taking a photo of a black hole in the Milky Way galaxy to photographing a grapefruit on the moon using a radio telescope.
“To image something this small means that we would need a telescope with a 10,000-kilometre diameter, which is not practical because the diameter of the Earth is not even 13,000 kilometers.”
A few months later, Bouman gave a TED Talk in which she discussed how she and other members of the Event Horizon Telescope project — a team comprising what she described as “a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers” — were working to use complex algorithms and data obtained from a global network of telescopes to try and stitch together
“You might be surprised to know that we may be seeing our first picture of a black hole in the next couple of years,” she told the audience.
Sure enough, less than two and a half years after the TED Talk, the first ever photo of a black hole was revealed by scientists, with Bouman’s role in the project being hailed as a success story for young women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Bouman, now 29, wrote one of the imaging algorithms that helped piece together the photo by filling in the gaps in imaging data obtained from the telescopes.
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The image was obtained using data collected in April 2017 from eight radio telescopes in six locations — Arizona, Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Antarctica.
The team’s observations strongly validated the theory of general relativity proposed in 1915 by Albert Einstein to explain the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces.
WATCH: Scientists unveil first image of a black hole
“The image has this exquisite beauty in its simplicity,” said astrophysicist Michael Johnson, the project’s imaging coordinator.
“It is just a fundamental statement about nature. It’s a really moving demonstration of just what humanity is capable of.”
Junior researchers like Bouman made a crucial contribution to the project, senior MIT researcher Vincent Fish told CNN.
“One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images,” Fish said.
“Just think about the photos you take with your camera phone — they have certain properties. … If you know what one pixel is, you have a good guess as to what the pixel is next to it.”
MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory also gave Bouman plenty of credit, tweeting an image of her alongside the iconic 1969 photo of MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who helped write the software code for NASA’s Apollo program, which landed humans on the moon.
In an interview with scientific journal Nature, Bouman hailed the groundbreaking black hole photo as the beginning of a new era of astrophysics exploration.
“This is just the beginning of being able to have another window into what black holes can tell us about our laws and physics,” she said.
The 29-year-old, who earned her Master’s degree and PhD from MIT, is starting as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology in the fall.
— With files from Reuters