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Meet Katie Bouman, the MIT grad who helped capture the black-hole image

Katherine Bouman and her astrophysicist colleagues kept the black hole picture secret for a year for study.
Katherine Bouman and her astrophysicist colleagues kept the black hole picture secret for a year for study.(handout)

Katherine Bouman had devoted years to the astonishing quest — to help capture the first image of a massive black hole in a distant galaxy, a void so dense no light can escape.

But when the mind-bending breakthrough finally came almost a year ago, the discovery had to stay a secret.

So, after the stunning image was revealed to the world Wednesday, Bouman’s excitement spilled out at what seemed the speed of light.

“We’ve been busting at the seams about what we’ve seen, but we had to keep our mouths shut,” said Bouman, 29, a doctoral graduate of MIT who continued her studies at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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What she and a large team of scientists from MIT, Harvard, and other universities had seen was the first-ever image of a cosmic black hole 53 million light-years away, a time-warping and light-twisting mystery of the universe whose existence Albert Einstein had hinted at a century ago.

The project was directed by Sheperd Doeleman, a senior research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“We have taken the first picture of a black hole — a one-way door out of our universe,” Doeleman said.

Sheperd Doeleman revealed the first photograph of a black hole during a news conference organized by the National Science Foundation at the National Press Club on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Sheperd Doeleman revealed the first photograph of a black hole during a news conference organized by the National Science Foundation at the National Press Club on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, nearly a year after scientists at the Black Hole Initiative in Cambridge applauded their discovery in private, Bouman and 200 other scientists — many of them from the Boston area — finally could speak about what many astronomers and others had thought impossible.

The image was the real thing, confirmed by test after test on data collected from eight radio telescopes around the globe. Finally, even after exhaustive efforts to prove themselves wrong, the discovery stood.

“It’s incredibly exciting. The goal was to see this thing that was essentially impossible to see, about the size of an orange on the moon,” Bouman said.

The project also plumbed the expertise of scientists at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, Boston University, Brandeis University, and the University of Massachusetts, among others.

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Bouman helped develop the algorithms for what is formally called the Event Horizon Telescope project, denoting the point at which light, matter, and other energy fall into the incomprehensible density of a black hole, trapped there for eternity.

While much of the matter around a black hole drops into its vortex, the new image captures the immense, circular shape of gas and dust whirling at the speed of light outside the point of no return.

The black hole in the constellation Virgo is seen as a dark shadow inside that circle, an enormous opening that is the size of our solar system and about 6 billion times the mass of the sun.

The existence of some smaller black holes, caused by the collapse of stars, has been known for decades. But Wednesday’s announcement in Washington, D.C., and five other locations around the globe is the first to display an image of a massive black hole.

Alan Marscher, professor of astronomy at Boston University.
Alan Marscher, professor of astronomy at Boston University. (Handout)

The positioning of the eight observatories essentially allowed the researchers to turn the rotating Earth into one enormous telescope with extraordinary resolution — about 3 million times sharper than 20/20 vision.

Four teams of scientists worked independently to analyze their data, retrieved over 10 days in April 2017 by telescopes from Mexico to Antarctica to Hawaii.

The scientists didn’t talk to other teams about the details of their work as they analyzed their data. They didn’t even tell their families about the results, Bouman said.

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But last summer, when the teams gathered at the Black Hole Initiative to share their findings, the startling similarities prompted an outpouring of celebration and awe.

“It was amazing to see that first ring, but it was even more unbelievable that we all produced the ring,” said Bouman, who is joining the faculty at the California Institute of Technology this year.

To verify what they had produced, the teams “tried to excise humans from the equation altogether,” Bouman said.

“We didn’t want to accidentally see a ring just because we wanted to see a ring,” she said. “But we kept getting the ring.”

The finding confirmed the existence of massive black holes that some skeptics had continued to doubt, even as science fiction and the entertainment industry have used them to captivate and terrify the earthbound.

Alan Marscher, a Boston University astronomer who led one of the teams, joined Bouman and others at a celebration in Washington on Wednesday.

“It’s not that common in science that you can get such a clean confirmation of such a theoretical explanation,” Marscher said.

“It’s very satisfying that the basic theory we’ve been working with for decades now is, in fact, confirmed.”

MIT’s Haystack Observatory, located off Route 40 in Westford, helped with the project’s hardware and software.

Vincent Fish, a research scientist at the observatory, said Haystack served as an equipment clearinghouse, sending special components and systems for recording data from the black hole project to observatories worldwide.

Haystack also received disks with recorded data from those observatories and processed them in a supercomputer. The Westford site was one of two where the data were assembled. The other was in Bonn.

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Fish said it was a major computational task: taking petabytes — equivalent to a million gigabytes — and compressing them to terabytes or less.

“At Haystack, we deal with the early part of the data,” he said. “I’m very proud. I’ve been working on this project since 2007. I’ve spent most of my professional life on this, and I’m just really glad we got such great results out of this,” Fish said.

The discovery is only a starting point, Bouman and Marscher said. Research techniques and algorithms will continue to be improved until, for example, the matter spinning around the edges of the black hole can be studied further.

In the meantime, there are congratulations to be accepted, colleagues to thank, and years of reminiscences to share. The outline of one of the universe’s most compelling mysteries —

a vestige, perhaps, of the big bang itself — has been revealed.

There is an extraordinary amount of work to be done. But on Wednesday night, at least, there was time for hours of celebration in Washington at the National Air and Space Museum.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.