On Wednesday, the spectacular first image of a black hole was released to the public, sparking a worldwide phenomenon – and it’s thanks, in large part, to Katie Bouman.
Bouman is a 29-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. When she was 26, Bouman developed an algorithm – Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors, or ‘CHIRP’ – to help parse the cumulative telescope data gathered by the Event Horizon Telescope project. The scale of the data was gargantuan – four petabytes, stored and transported in hundreds of pounds’ worth of hard drives due to the infeasibility of network transmission.
Bouman was scouring the data with the hopes of creating the first ever image of a black hole – until now, a fascinating phenomenon that had proved impossible to capture. When CHIRP generated an algorithm, Bouman delivered the core data to four separate verification teams, which each developed an image. When all five images were compared, the similarities were striking, and Bouman knew that she was on the right track.
“That was the happiest moment I’ve ever had [when] I saw all the other teams had images that were very similar, with the lower half brighter than the top half,” Bouman told The Wall Street Journal. “It was amazing to see everyone got that.”
Bouman is eager to share the spotlight. “No one algorithm or person made this image,” she wrote. “It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat. It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.”
Six papers on the work have been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. In the fall, Bouman will begin teaching as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology.