Meet Katie Bouman, the MIT grad whose formula helped create the black hole image

It’s widely known that Millennials enjoy taking pictures, whether it be of their food or of their pets, but one 29-year-old just took the practice of image capturing to a whole new level.

On April 10, news feeds and timelines were flooded with the first ever black hole image, which was made possible with the implementation of a formula created by a woman named Katie Bouman, according to CNN.

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Bouman began working with the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration as a  Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student. In 2016, Bouman led the creation of the imaging algorithm, which she titled “Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors.”

Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.

Posted by Katie Bouman on Wednesday, April 10, 2019

How the black hole image algorithm worked

black hole
EHT Collaboration

The black hole, which exists at the center of a galaxy known as M87, is 26,000 light years away from Earth, meaning you would need a massive telescope to capture an image of it. In fact, you’d need one the size of the entire Earth.

Instead, the collaboration of scientists used the combined power of eight telescopes located around the world to capture data about the bright ring that formed as light bent around the black hole. Though the telescopes collected millions of gigabytes of data, there were still gaps that needed to be filled in. Using Bouman’s formula, the team took images from the separate telescopes and merged them by stitching the data together.

“(Bouman) was a major part of one of the imaging subteams,” Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, told CNN. “One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images. 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.”

The team consisted of senior and junior scientists, Fish said, but the imaging portion was mostly led by junior researchers, like Bouman.

About Katie Bouman

Bouman, who earned masters degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT in 2013, stayed with the university for her Ph.D., which she obtained in 2017. She is a Visiting Associate in Computing and Mathematical Sciences at the California Institute of Technology for the 2018-19 school year and will start as an Assistant Professor next fall.

Charles Bouman, Katie’s father, told USA Today that his daughter was participating in research at Purdue University, which happens to be in her hometown of West Lafayette, Indiana, while she was still in high school.  Her father added that Katie warned the family of a big announcement, but gave no specific details.

“She kept it absolutely secret, even from her parents,” Charles told USA Today.

Bouman will not be dubbed as the star of the show. While she currently shares the spotlight with the black hole image itself, she credits the success to the efforts of the entire team, writing on Facebook, “No one algorithm or person made this image, 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.”

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