STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

That image of a black hole you saw everywhere today? Thank this grad student for making it possible

The effort wouldn't have been possible without Katie Bouman, who developed a crucial algorithm that helped devise imaging methods.

Posted: Apr 10, 2019 3:10 PM

By Michelle Lou and Saeed Ahmed, CNN

(CNN) -- Imagine trying to take a photo of an orange that's on the moon with your smartphone. It seems impossible.

That's what it was like for scientists trying to capture an image of a black hole in space. Despite the tall order, an international team of more than 200 researchers unveiled the first-ever image of a black hole on Wednesday.

The effort wouldn't have been possible without Katie Bouman, who developed a crucial algorithm that helped devise imaging methods.

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 center of a galaxy known as M87. She was then a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Black holes are extremely far away and compact, so taking a photo of one is no easy task. In addition, black holes by definition are supposed to be invisible -- although 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. However, there were still large gaps in the data that needed to be filled in.

Her algorithm, and many others, helped fill in the gaps
That's where Bouman's algorithm -- along with several others -- came in. Using imaging algorithms like Bouman's, researchers created three scripted code pipelines to piece together the picture.

They took the "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.

"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."

The 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. 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.

Bouman was a crucial member of the imaging team
"(Bouman) was a major part of one of the imaging subteams," said Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT's Haystack Observatory.

"One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images," Fish said. "Just think about the photos you take with your camera phone -- they have certain properties. ... If you know what one pixel is, you have a good guess as to what the pixel is next to it."

For example, there are areas that are smoother and areas that have sharp boundaries. Astronomical images share these properties, and you can mathematically encode these properties, Fish said.

Junior members like Bouman made significant contributions to the project, he added. Of course, senior scientists worked on the project, but the imaging portion was mostly led by junior researchers, such as graduate students and post docs.

"No one of us could've done it alone," Bouman said. "It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds."

Bouman starts teaching as an assistant professor at California Institute of Technology in the fall.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 22300

Reported Deaths: 383
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah5135101
Washington323527
Marion304073
Umatilla236231
Clackamas160749
Malheur85115
Deschutes62111
Lane6113
Jackson5152
Yamhill48313
Lincoln4289
Union3972
Jefferson3924
Morrow3843
Polk33712
Linn30611
Hood River2070
Klamath2062
Wasco1973
Benton1816
Douglas1591
Josephine1302
Columbia1031
Coos910
Clatsop870
Crook511
Baker450
Tillamook350
Lake320
Wallowa201
Curry170
Sherman160
Harney110
Gilliam40
Grant40
Unassigned00
Wheeler00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 597984

Reported Deaths: 10870
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2144255113
Riverside43983853
Orange42171769
San Bernardino38290555
San Diego33393608
Kern25499187
Fresno18344191
Alameda14548216
San Joaquin14276245
Sacramento13216194
Santa Clara13059207
Tulare11847205
Stanislaus11592182
Contra Costa10482151
Imperial9957257
Ventura879093
San Francisco794467
Santa Barbara708373
San Mateo6640122
Merced622474
Monterey580340
Marin558381
Kings512762
Solano441441
Sonoma385951
Madera275944
Placer248627
San Luis Obispo232418
Yolo191845
Santa Cruz13576
Butte13058
Napa114211
Sutter10417
El Dorado7932
San Benito7734
Lassen6940
Yuba6884
Mendocino48910
Shasta47610
Glenn4363
Colusa4015
Nevada3571
Tehama3051
Humboldt2994
Lake2672
Amador19810
Calaveras1611
Mono1601
Tuolumne1592
Inyo1155
Siskiyou1090
Del Norte1040
Mariposa632
Plumas380
Trinity60
Modoc50
Sierra50
Alpine20
Unassigned00
Medford
Clear
58° wxIcon
Hi: 103° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 58°
Brookings
Clear
62° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 62°
Crater Lake
Clear
47° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 47°
Grants Pass
Overcast
55° wxIcon
Hi: 101° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 55°
Klamath Falls
Clear
47° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 47°
Heat wave begins Friday
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events