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The Student Responsible for First-Ever Black Hole Image

Yesterday, scientists presented an image of a black hole to the world, for the first time ever. Today, the world found out that the image wouldn’t have been possible without Katie Bouman, a then-MIT grad student who developed an algorithm to help devise imaging methods

 It was no easy task: black holes are both far and dense, as well as invisible – although some material located at the border of the black hole, the point of no return, can be seen.


Even though the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project collected a plethora of data through interferometry, large gaps existed in the data. Bouman’s algorithm was then used by the researchers to put together the entire picture.


Bouman’s task has been to verify the images and select the imaging parameters.

"We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image," she said. "We didn't want to just develop one algorithm. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them. If all of them recover the same general structure, then that builds your confidence."


The result is a circular, lopsided structure predicted by Albert Einstein more than a century ago. The EHT researchers generated several photos of the black hole – what they presented yesterday was a combination of those images. "No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards crazy to get something that wasn't this ring," Bouman said.


"One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images," said MIT Haystack Observatory scientist Vincent Fish. "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."


Fish explained that just as areas of a photo have smooth and sharp boundaries, so do astronomical images – and you can write code for these sorts of variables.


Fish added that Bouman’s contribution – just as the contributions of many junior researchers, graduate students and post docs who worked side-by-side with senior scientists on this project – is invaluable.


"No one of us could've done it alone," Bouman said. "It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds."