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The MIT Computer Scientist Whose Algorithm Led To The First Real Image Of A Black Hole

The first-ever image of a black hole was released Wednesday. (Courtesy: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.)
The first-ever image of a black hole was released Wednesday. (Courtesy: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.)

Three years ago, Katie Bouman was an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She led a team of researchers to create an algorithm that would lead to the first real image of a black hole.

On Wednesday, that image finally was captured.

Through the effort of scientists across the globe, the supermassive black hole was photographed in the middle of the Messier 87 galaxy within the Virgo galaxy cluster, about 55 million light years away from MIT's Haystack Observatory in Westford, Mass.

Bouman's algorithm stitched together data from eight synchronized radio telescopes to form what looks like a ring of fire surrounding a black sphere — the shadow of the black hole.

"This black hole is so far away from us, so from that this ring appears incredibly small, the same size to us as an orange on the surface of the moon," Bouman said in a 2016 TedTalk. "That makes taking a picture of it extremely difficult."

More than 200 scientists were involved in creating the final image, including Vincent Fish, a research scientist at the MIT Haystack Observatory.

Fish spoke with WBUR's Anthony Brooks on Radio Boston Wednesday, saying he's been working toward this one image for more than a decade.

"I've been involved with the project since 2007," he said. "That seems like so long ago, and yet it also seems like practically yesterday. But actually making an image? I'm glad to be able to do that."

The next step is to go back to the telescopes to collect and monitor even more data, said Fish.

"People tend to view the sky as something static, that things don't change in the heavens. Or if they do, it's on timescales that are longer than a human lifetime," he said in an MIT press release. "But what we find for M87 is, at the very fine detail we have, objects change on the timescale of days."

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Hannah Chanatry is WBUR’s Weekend Edition Producer and All Things Considered Newswriter.

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