Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first-ever photo taken of a black hole — but one woman played an essential role in capturing the image.
According to the Washington Post, Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old computer scientist, created the algorithm that made it possible to assemble the photo.
Telescopes from researchers across the world had gathered data from the vicinity of the black hole, but a sophisticated algorithm was needed to create a single, accurate photo from the massive amount of data.
Bouman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, reported the Post. She had been working on the algorithm for almost six years, beginning when she was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed,” she wrote on social media on Wednesday.
“I have an interest in how can we see things or measure things that are thought to be invisible to us,” Bouman told the Post. “And how can we come up with unique ways to merge the instrumentation and algorithms to get at measuring things that you can’t measure with standard instruments.”
Bouman was commended by many on Wednesday, with some heralding her as a role model for women in science and math fields. Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris praised Bouman on Twitter, writing, “Katie Bouman proved women in STEM don’t just make the impossible, possible, but make history while doing it.”
Actress Olivia Munn also chimed in, sharing, “We got the very first photo of a black hole because of an amazing team led by MIT grad student Katie Bouman, who helped create the algorithm that made the image possible. Congratulations and THANK YOU, Katie! You’re an inspiration to so many people.”
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In the image released Wednesday, the black hole is outlined by an orange ring that is actually emission from hot gas swirling near its event horizon. Black holes have extremely strong gravity, meaning anything that enters its event horizon, or point of no-return is swallowed up, according to NASA.
The image, which has been praised by scientists as an “amazing accomplishment,” was captured by an international network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope, NASA said.
The black hole sits at the center of galaxy Messier 87, located nearly 55 million light-years away from Earth, and has a mass 6.5 billion times bigger than the sun.
“This is an amazing accomplishment by the EHT team,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, according to NASA. “Years ago, we thought we would have to build a very large space telescope to image a black hole. By getting radio telescopes around the world to work in concert like one instrument, the EHT team achieved this, decades ahead of time.”