When astronomers announced on Wednesday they had captured the first-ever photo of a black hole, an international team of scientists said they had seen the “unseeable.” Collaborating with more than 200 researchers across the world, the Event Horizon Telescope project used data from eight radio telescopes in six locations provided the input necessary to compile the photo. Katie Bouman, a University of Michigan alum and postdoctoral fellow at MIT, created an algorithm as a graduate student that helped make the groundbreaking feat possible.
Now an assistant professor at the California Institute Of Technology, Bouman got her start at the University, graduating with a B.S.E. in Electrical Engineering in 2011. Following the project’s achievement, Bouman’s name was trending nationally on Twitter Wednesday night.
Bouman explained the research team’s process to CNN.
“We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image,” Bouman 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 was a slightly blurry photo of a black hole in Messier 87, a galaxy more than 50 million light years away, surrounded by a bright orange ring.
Various obstacles have blocked scientists from successfully photographing black holes in the past, ranging from the challenges associated with overcoming the physical distance from earth to the difficulty of taking a picture of something that essentially devours light.
Bouman led the development of the algorithm that proved crucial in the process of devising imaging methods. That algorithm, which was created in 2016, patched together information collected from radio telescopes located around the globe. Bouman discussed the process in an interview with MIT News in June of that year.
“Radio wavelengths come with a lot of advantages,” Bouman said. “Just like how radio frequencies will go through walls, they pierce through galactic dust. We would never be able to see into the center of our galaxy in visible wavelengths because there’s too much stuff in between.”
In a tweet, President Mark Schlissel praised Bouman for her work.
The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department echoed Schlissel’s congratulations.
Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT Haystack Observatory, told CNN that junior team members like Bouman played significant roles in their research. According to Fish, junior researchers — graduate and postdoctoral students — primarily took the lead in regards to the imaging portion of the work. He said Bouman was a “major part” of one of the imaging subteams.
“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.”
Bouman said the collaborative nature of the project was essential to its success.
“No one of us could’ve done it alone,” Bouman said. “It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds.”