Young Success

Meet the 29-year-old woman behind the first-ever black hole image

First-ever image of a black hole, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope and released on April 10, 2019.
Handout | Getty Images News | Getty Images
First-ever image of a black hole, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope and released on April 10, 2019.

The world was mesmerized this week by the first-ever image of a black hole, captured by a network of eight linked telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration.

But in the days since, attention has turned to a second image: That of the 29-year-old woman who made it all possible.

Computer scientist Dr. Katie Bouman has been credited with leading the creation of an algorithm that successfully photographed the halo of dust and gas situated 500 million trillion kilometers from Earth.

A photo of Bouman bracing herself for the groundbreaking release has been widely shared on social media.

In a post on her Facebook account, the young scientist wrote: "Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed."

Bouman started work on the computer program three years ago, while she was a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While there, she was responsible for leading the project, with assistance from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory.

The algorithm was then used to render data captured by the EHT to render the millions of gigabytes of data it has collected during its decade-long mission to photograph the black hole.

"When we saw it for the first time, we were all in disbelief. It was quite spectacular," Bouman told BBC Radio 5 live.

Following the release of the image, Bouman has received international plaudit for her years-long work — including from celebrities and politicians.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a vocal proponent of women in leadership, praised Bouman's "enormous contribution to the advancements of science and mankind."

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's daughter and White House advisor Ivanka Trump tweeted: "Big congrats! Hooray for #WomenInSTEM like Bouman!"

Bouman, who is now an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology, was keen to point out the shared input of her colleagues.

"No one of us could do it alone," she told CNN.

The efforts to capture the image involved a team of more than 200 scientists in locations across the globe. Bouman's was one of a number of algorithms used to piece together the images captured by the network of telescopes.

Yet her method of processing the data — which involved multiple algorithms with "different assumptions build into them" — was said to be instrumental.

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

Her contribution was also hailed by MIT and the Smithsonian on social media.

"3 years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole," MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab wrote.

In a separate video on her Instagram page, Bouman noted: "This is ... the beginning of being able to have another window into what black holes can tell us about our laws and physics."