How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole
Tom Spendlove posted on April 12, 2019 |

Katie Bouman wonders if it's possible to see something that, by definition, is impossible to see. In her TEDx Talk How to take a picture of a black hole, Bouman first talks about the black hole imagined in the movie Interstellar, or the possible visuals of a black hole theorized by Albert Einstein. She then discusses the method behind her team's efforts to bring in the first black hole picture.


Bouman says that the stars in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy are the most interesting, because they orbit an invisible object, and that radio wavelengths might show us a ring of light representing the hot plasma circling the black hole. The picture would be a great achievement but also information that can be used to verify some of Einstein's equations related to the size and shape of the black hole.

Unfortunately, a conventional telescope required for viewing the black hole would need to be as big as the earth itself, and that might not give a clear picture. The Event Horizon Telescope consists of a network of telescopes that are linked together and researchers are collecting data to be processed at MIT. Bouman explains that her algorithm sorts an incredible number of images based on how likely those images are to contain black hole data. One difficulty here is the fact that we've never seen a black hole, so it's hard to tell the program what to look for.

Katie Bouman has been celebrated as a female STEM icon this week after pictures of the black hole were made public. Her TEDx Talk here is engaging and she does a great job explaining her complex algorithm in identifiable terms. Bouman is quick to recognize the idea that scientists, astronauts, mathematicians and engineers are all required for the project. I've really enjoyed this peek into how she was organizing her methods and finding inspiration back in 2017, back when the black hole image was a possibility and not yet realized.



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