Thank You Katie Bouman: The First Black Hole Selfie Ever
I know you’ve seen all those pictures of black holes in movies like Interstellar, but this is a seriously big deal. All those movies were just speculating, unsure of what a black hole really looked like. For years, we had to take what Einstein theorized as fact, but now we don’t have to. Even though he was right.
Okay, let’s take it back. I am no astrophysicist and I will never hope to be, but maybe that works out for you because I can only explain it in a way that makes sense for me and therefore for you.
Einstein’s theory of relativity essentially claimed that a black hole, which is at the center of every universe, has a gravitational pull so heavy that light can’t even escape it. It just sucks anything up anything that gets too close and we never see it again. Of course, we couldn’t see the black hole in the first place because, well it was black against black space and it was also thousands of trillions of kilometers away. It’s so far away that scientists originally thought it would be impossible to ever get a picture of it. In order to do that, they’d have to build a telescope the size of our planet that would be able to capture a picture of an orange on the surface of the moon. That would essentially be like standing in New York and trying to count the dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles.
It was all a lost cause until Katie Bouman and her amazing team of scientists created an algorithm named CHIRP that would use the few existing telescopes we have around the world and make them function like a giant telescope capable of seeing a black hole. It took a few years to get it right, but they finally did it. And although a lot of memes resulted out of it, it’s really friggin’ cool how they did it.
It was called the Event Horizon Telescope project which took a whole lot of planning and timing to a tee. Eight telescopes ranging from the South Pole to America were all synchronized to a clock that was so accurate, it would lose only one second per hundred million years. Meanwhile, my watch stops working the second I step out the store. Then it was time for the black hole to pose and say cheese for the first time ever. Except this camera had to have its hundreds of pounds of film transported to a supercomputer to process this selfie.
One of the major challenges Katie Bouman and her team of super-scientists faced was keeping their Einstein fueled biases out of the algorithm used to take the picture. According to Bouman in a TED Talk she gave in 2017, if they fed images into the algorithm that looked too much like what they thought a black hole looked like, the camera would just capture something that matched their description and it might not even be the black hole. Because all they had to go off of for so long was Einstein’s ideas, they had to be sure they weren’t looking for something they were expecting to see.
To solve this problem, four different teams of scientists around the world collected photographs of everyday images (similar to images we take on a daily basis) and fed them into the algorithm. That way, if all four of them came out with the same image, Bouman and her team would know it was correct and unbiased. And as of April 10, 2019 that is exactly what happened. We finally got a glimpse of the event horizon of a black hole. Turns out Einstein really was a genius.
The only reason we got this picture is because when this black hole sucks up objects around it, they spin around and around in the event horizon of the black hole. The event horizon is essentially the mouth of the black hole, and as objects spin inside of it, they spin so fast they create friction which produces light. It’s kinda like when you shock someone and you can see the electricity. Or when you move your hands on your sheets too fast and see a burst of light. This is the light we see in the picture, just objects moving extremely fast before they disappear forever. Terrifying, but cool.
So, now we can laugh and scoff at all those movies that were simply speculating. All movies from now on will be completely accurate. All we’re waiting for is scientists to discover life on other planets.
I got all of my information phys.org.