Meet Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old grad student behind first image of Black Hole

The image of the black hole which was unveiled by an international team of 200 researchers on Wednesday, has been doing rounds on the Internet. But not many know that the effort would have impossible without Katie Bouman, who developed a crucial algorithm that helped devise imaging methods.

According to CNN, three years ago, Bouman led the creation of an algorithm that eventually helped capture this first-of-its-kind image: a supermassive black hole and its shadow at the centre of a galaxy known as M87. She was then a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Black holes are extremely far away and compact, so taking a photo of one is a tedious task. Black holes by definition are supposed to be invisible and they can give off a shadow when they interact with the material around them.

A global network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope project collected millions of gigabytes of data about M87 using a technique known as interferometry.

The global network took ‘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.

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“We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image,” she told CNN.

“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.” Bouman added.

And as a final result, a groundbreaking image of a lopsided, ring-like structure that Albert Einstein predicted more than a century ago in his theory of general relativity. In fact, the researchers had generated several photos and they all looked the same.

Surprisingly, the image of the black hole presented on Wednesday was not from any one method, but all the images from different algorithms that were blurred together.

“No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards crazy to get something that wasn’t this ring,” Bouman said.

“Junior members like Bouman made significant contributions to the project, said Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT. Of course, senior scientists worked on the project, but the imaging portion was mostly led by junior researchers, such as graduate students and postdocs.

(With ANI inputs)

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