April 15th, 2019

Person of the Year

After 10 years of planning and scientific investments totaling over $50 million, researchers released the first-ever image of a black hole. The image is a feat of modern science — experts say it’s the equivalent of taking a photo of an orange on the moon with a smartphone — and international collaboration. Over 200 scientists across the globe contributed to the project.

One of those scientists is Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old computer scientist who began working on the project when she was a graduate student at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. Bouman’s research led to the creation of a new algorithm that allowed scientists to bring the black hole image to life, a task with a level of difficulty that cannot be overstated.

“The black hole is really, really far away from us. The one we showed a picture of is 55 million light years away. That means that image is what the black hole was like 55 million years ago,” explains Bouman. “The law of diffraction tells us that given the wavelength that we need in order to see that event horizon, which is about one millimeter, and the resolution we need to see a ring of that size, we would need to build an earth-sized telescope.”

That is where computer scientists like Bouman came in. “Obviously, we can’t build an earth-sized telescope. So instead, what we did is we built a computational earth-sized telescope,” she says. “We took telescopes that were already built around the world and were able to observe at the wavelength we needed, and we connected them together into a network that would work together.” That computational telescope is the Event Horizon Telescope, a constellation of telescopes in the South Pole, Chile, Spain, Mexico and the United States.

There is hope for the future!

Kemo D. 7