Dr. Katie Bouman is the person behind the first ever photo of a Black Hole
After the many technological advances and inventions of the last 100 years or so, it sometimes feels like human innovation has plateaued a bit - but there are still scientists working all across the world, discovering new things about the universe we live in and discovering new ways to live in it.
This week, on April 10, we got to see the first-ever photograph of a black hole, a staggering achievement that left the world in awe.
The sight was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope from over 54 million light-years away. And, measuring at 40 billion km across with a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun, it's really quite impressive.
"What we see is larger than the size of our entire Solar System," explained Professor Heino Falcke, from Radboud University in the Netherlands. "It is an absolute monster, the heavyweight champion of black holes in the Universe."
The incredible was captured by a global network of scientists on the EHT team, made up of 200 researchers. Despite her insistence that it was "a team effort," Harvard graduate Katie Bouman is a key member of this process, having spent years gathering the data that eventually became the image of the black hole.
Her expertise is in computer science and electrical engineering rather than astrophysics, but her passion for "coming up with ways to see or measure things that are invisible" made her invaluable to the project.
Joining the EHT team six years ago, she created algorithms to process the endless information taken from studying the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy (taking up half a ton of hard drives) and transform it into one comprehensible photo. Speaking to Time this week, she said that they had to keep their "lips sealed", not even telling their families about the photo before they could release it.
“We all watched as the images appeared on our computers," she said. "The ring came so easily. It was unbelievable."
"Traditionally the way you make images in radio astronomy is you actually have a human there who is kind of guiding the imaging methods in the direction they think they should go. And for data like this, that is so sparse, so noisy, where it’s so hard to try to find an image, that was a dangerous game to play.
"Even though we had worked on this for years, I don’t think any of us expected we would get a ring that easily. We just expected a blob."
As far as her place as a woman in a heavily male-dominated field, she's not too concerned about this discovery affecting her status, but does think it's a situation that needs to change. She said:
"I do sometimes think about it. How do we get more women involved? One key is showing that when you go into fields like computer science and engineering."
"It’s not just sitting in a lab putting together a circuit or typing on your computer," Bouman added.
“It’s exciting," she concluded. "As long as you’re excited and you’re motivated to work on it, then you should never feel like you can’t do it.”