The big news in the science world this week was the first visualization of a black hole in human existence. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) -- a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration -- was designed to capture images of a black hole. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they have succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.
It measures 40 billion km across - three million times the size of the Earth - and has been described by scientists as "a monster." The black hole is 500 million trillion km away and was photographed by a network of eight telescopes across the world.
The most interesting part of this story though, was how this image were developed.
A 29-year-old, Katie Bouman, developed an algorithm three years ago when she was a grad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that helped create three scripted code pipelines to procure the image. They took the "sparse and noisy data" that the telescopes spit out and tried to make an image. For the past few years, Bouman directed the verification of images and selection of imaging parameters.
She told CNN:
"We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image. 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. No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards crazy to get something that wasn't this (image)."
A research scientist, Vincent Fish, working with her at MIT lauded her efforts:
"One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images. 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. For example, there are areas that are smoother and areas that have sharp boundaries. Astronomical images share these properties, and you can mathematically encode these properties. Junior members like Bouman made significant contributions to the project."
Bouman will start teaching as an assistant professor in the fall at the California Institute of Technology. She is already being compared to Margaret Hamilton of NASA who developed on-board flight software for the Apollo Space Program and pioneered the concept of software engineering.
Most people in their mid-20s are still recovering from college, paying student loans, and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Katie Bouman, with what she has accomplished already, is clearly lightyears ahead.
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