Dr Katie Bouman: The remarkable 29-year-old woman who showed world the black hole

Helen Chandler-Wilde
Dr Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old who wrote the algorithm which produced the picture - @MIT_CSAIL/Twitter

Dr Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old scientist who this week created the first ever picture of a black hole, is humble about her achievements. 

She posted a picture of herself on Facebook, hands crisscrossed over her mouth in amazement. The caption read: “Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed”. 

Friends pointed to an omission. “That’s a pretty humble description. Isn’t it the first EVER picture of a black hole, in addition to being the first one you ever made?” one wrote.

Dr Bouman’s vital contribution was writing an algorithm that turned radio data into the coloured image. It involved doing both her own original science and leading a team. Her picture is the first visual proof of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which predicts that when enough mass collapses together it deforms spacetime, creating a gravity field that pulls even light inside.

She has made a huge contribution to the field of astrophysics. But despite all this, she is still keen to shift the credit to others. 

The photo created by Dr Bouman's algorithm

“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”, she wrote in another post on social media. “It has been truly an honour, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.”

Dr Bouman’s CV reveals an impressive academic record in electrical engineering and computer science. She has studied at some of the best institutions in the world, getting an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, and a Masters and PhD at MIT, winning prizes and scholarships along the way.

In 2017, as a graduate student, she took up her role leading the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team - which made the black hole picture possible - based out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, in Massachusetts.

Her success has caught the attention of high-profile figures. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat Congresswoman, tweeted: “Take your rightful seat in history, Dr. Bouman! Congratulations and thank you for your enormous contribution to the advancements of science and mankind.”

Dr Katie Bouman posing with stacks of hard drives which stored the data from the telescopes Credit: @MIT_CSAIL/Twitter

Senator Kamala Harris, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, said: “Katie Bouman proved women in STEM don’t just make the impossible, possible, but make history while doing it.”

The importance of her work is one of the few things that people across the political divide in America can agree on, with Ivanka Trump tweeting: “Today, the world saw the 1st-ever image of a #BlackHole - an amazing accomplishment made possible by Scientist Katie Bouman. Big congrats!” 

It is so remarkable because photographing a black hole is almost impossible. Dr Bouman has likened it to “taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon”, as “a black hole is very, very far away and very compact”.

That’s space lingo. The black hole is not “compact” in terms we would recognise down here on Earth. It is 60 billion km in diameter (37.3 billion miles) - or three million times the size of our planet. Taking a picture of it would require a telescope that is 10,000km across (6,200 miles). That would be tricky, given that the Earth’s diameter is just 13,000km. 

Dr Katie Bouman's Facebook post, showing the moment of her discovery Credit: @MIT_CSAIL/Twitter

Dr Bouman - supported by her team - overcame this by developing an algorithm called CHIRP (Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors) to link data from several telescopes. This essentially turned Earth into one giant camera.

Using her algorithm, scientists were able to create a network of eight space observatories, or the EHT. Data collected from these made that already famous image of arrant darkness, ringed by the orange glow of light being bent by the intense power of the black hole. 

It is a complicated feat: the observatories were spread across the world in Chile, Antarctica, Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico and Spain. The satellite dishes are vast, reaching up to 50m across, and all at altitude - with one in Chile at 5,100m above sea level, higher than the summit of Mont Blanc.

The Maunakea Observatory on top of a mountain in Hawaii is one of eight sites which joined together in the EHT Credit:  Maunakea Observatories

They pick up radio signals, rather than visual data. Dr Bouman explains why this is important. “Just like how radio frequencies will go through walls, they pierce through galactic dust. We would never be able to see into the centre of our galaxy in visible wavelengths because there’s too much stuff in between.”

The amount of information needed from the dishes was enormous. MIT shared a photo on Twitter that shows Dr Bouman posing next to piles of hard drives containing the satellite’s data. They spliced the image with a photo of Margaret Hamilton, 50 years earlier in 1969, standing next to the piled-up books of code she wrote to make the moon landing possible.

Putting together radio data from the dishes was difficult for many technical reasons. In short, it made a very blurry photo.

Dr Bouman solved this problem via a complicated version of the method used by forensic scientists to sharpen CCTV footage in crime investigations. She employed several mathematical processes to create the image we all saw.

One reason Dr Bouman’s achievements are being so loudly celebrated by everyone (except her) is because many of the women who have made important discoveries in science have been forgotten by history. 

A study of the archives of the Royal Society in 2010 found that women had been more important to several fields than previously thought. They found examples, over 350 years, of women’s work being dismissed and ridiculed, with their role as homemaker always placed first.

To this day, Dorothy Hodgkin is the only British woman to have won a Nobel Prize in science, for her work on the structure of proteins. When she received it, in 1964, the Daily Mail described her victory as: “Oxford housewife wins Nobel”. 

Dr Bauman is just 29. She will surely go on to discover more great things - she has only just got her first assistant professor post, at the California Institute of Technology. Who knows what she will find next: watch this space.