Katie Bouman: The Woman Behind the First Black Hole Image

Meet Katie Bouman, a computer science expert whose algorithm was a crucial component of producing the first-ever image of a black hole located in the M87 galaxy. This project was no small feat. It was six years in the making with Bouman successfully creating this algorithm three years ago when she was still a graduate student at MIT. In the beginning stages of this research, Bouman claimed she barely knew what a black hole really was, and was only an expert in computer science and extremely advanced imaging techniques. While there were several team members working on various algorithms to piece together this image, it was said that Bouman played a crucial role in her imaging team. Despite her lack of knowledge, she used interdisciplinary methods to create an imaging algorithm for astrophysicists to use. Moreover, even as a junior researcher, she was still able to make significant contributions to the work alongside her more experienced senior research partners.

 

All of this work culminated when last summer in a Harvard research facility, where the first image of a black hole finally came together.

 

(Photo via CNN)

 

The image of the black hole is actually just the shadow of the black hole since, by definition and nature, it is impossible to see one. The glowing, orange light is a byproduct of the immense amount of energy the black hole produces when it devours and sucks in matter, which is what allows us to view the black hole’s shadow. Furthermore, this image also aligns with Einstein’s theory of relativity, specifically about the parts concerning black holes, in which he predicted that they are circular over 100 years ago. This black hole, in a galaxy called Messier 87, is approximately 55 million light years away from us, meaning that the image researchers have developed is a representation of the black hole 55 million years ago.

 

(Photo via CNN)

 

This image is not only scientifically groundbreaking, but also socially. Women only make up 30% of all researchers, even though they make up slightly more than half of the global population. Having a female computer scientist as a spotlight researcher in this discovery, even though most of her colleagues were in fact men, is crucial to improving representation in STEM fields. She is a role model for any girl, from childhood to college students, who are interested in pursuing a career or academic focus in computer science, astrophysics, research, and the STEM field as a whole.