Technologies

Kathy Bowman’s algorithm: how a MIT graduate helped make the first black hole photograph in history

The story of the girl who became an important part of the historical event made her a heroine according to the social networks.


Katie Bowman

On April 10, astrophysicists presented the first ever black hole image. Over the years, an international team of more than 200 scientists has been working on obtaining photos. And one of the most important team members was Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old girl who developed an algorithm for visualizing data from telescopes around the world that followed a black hole.

Within a few hours, Bowman became the heroine of social network users and the “face” of a historic event. But scientists recognize that without it the first photo of the black hole could not have happened.

The black-hole monitoring project called Event Horizon Telescope (“Event Horizon Telescope”) was launched in 2012. Astrophysicists wanted to collect data about a black hole in the center of the galaxy M87 in the constellation Virgo, but for this they would need a telescope that can not bear its own weight.

Therefore, scientists used eight different telescopes in Hawaii, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Chile and the South Pole. But project participants did not know how to synchronize data and turn it into a single image. This is where Bowman helped.

In 2016, she studied at the graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – she studied computer science and artificial intelligence. In the same year, Bowman developed the first version of the algorithm, which would transform data from different telescopes into one image, as if made from a single “large” telescope the size of the Earth.

Bowman talks about his work at the TED conference (there are Russian subtitles)

In 2017, the Event Horizon Telescope project telescopes collected millions of gigabytes of black hole data in the galaxy M87. There was so much data that they were sent to MIT on several hundreds of hard drives – it was impossible to transfer everything via the Internet. For the next two years, Bowman led the team that processed all the information using its algorithm and several others.

The girl called even such a volume of data “meager, noisy and limited”, so the team had to check everything and select the “most likely” variants of what a black hole might look like. The work was complicated by the fact that no one knew how black holes actually looked like – the team worked almost blindly.

In June 2018, specialists received the first version of the black hole image, collected from different telescopes. April 10 photo of a happy Bowman, who saw the result of their work, became viral.


Katie Bowman sees the restored black hole photo for the first time.

Bowman – only part of a huge group of people who worked on the first photo of the black hole. But the story of a girl who, without being an astrophysicist, contributed to a historical event, made her a hero of social networks. She was compared with the American scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led the development of software for the Apollo space program.

1969: Margaret Hamilton with the code that led us to the moon. 2019: Kathy Bowman with data that led us to a black hole

Three years ago, MIT graduate Kathy Bowman led the creation of an algorithm that made the first black hole photo ever.

Bowman herself, who had already been given several interviews in a day, does not setherself apart from the rest of the team of scientists and astrophysicists. In the autumn of 2019, the next stage of her life begins – a girl was invited to teach at the California Institute of Technology.

None of us could do it alone. Everything could turn out thanks to a great number of different people with their own background. I would like to encourage everyone to continue pushing the boundaries of science. Even if at first it may not seem as mysterious as a black hole.

Katie Bowman algorithm author

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