In years to come, people will remember April 10 as a historic day for humankind, quantum physics, and women in STEM.
The first-ever image of a black hole some 54 million light years away was published on this day, largely due to the algorithms created by computer scientist Dr Katherine L Bouman.
The now viral image of the black hole—6.5 billion times more massive than the sun and invisible to the naked eye—as a luminous halo of dust was pieced together from telescopic data collected over 10 days from different parts of the world, and rendered by Bouman’s algorithm, in a feat previously believed to be impossible.
How was this possible?
A Harvard alumnus and professor at CalTech, Bouman, 29, led the creation of a computer program—Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (or CHIRP)—that made this breakthrough possible.
A network of eight linked radio telescopes (Event Horizon Telescope network), in locations ranging from Antarctica to Chile, along with 200 scientists made it possible for Bouman to frame the black hole in Messier 87 galaxy, some 500 million trillion km from Earth.
But it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. To extract accurate and visual information to account for the different rates at which astronomical signals reach the telescopes, Bouman adopted a clever algebraic solution.
As MIT explained: If the measurements from three telescopes are multiplied, the extra delays caused by atmospheric noise cancel each other out. This does mean that each new measurement requires data from three telescopes, not just two, but the increase in precision makes up for the loss of information.
Her method of processing this raw data was also instrumental in the creation of the striking image, claim experts.
Bouman spearheaded an elaborate series of tests whereby multiple algorithms with “different assumptions built into them” attempted to recover a photo from the data, just to verify that the EHT’s image was not the result of some form of technical glitch or fluke.
At one stage, this involved the collaboration splitting into four teams, which analysed the data independently until they were confident of their findings, reported The Guardian. CHIRP then reconstructed and refined the original images to prepare the final image of the black hole.
A brief profile
Bouman was a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when she began working on the programme three years ago.
Assisted by a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory, she led the research that enabled her team to collaboratively develop the algorithm.
The paper, “Computational Imaging for VLBI Image Reconstruction”, of which Bouman is the first author, includes contributions by Michael D Johnson, Daniel Zoran, Vincent L Fish, Sheperd S Doeleman, and William T Freeman.
Bouman conducted a TED talk in 2016 titled ‘How To Take A Picture of a Black Hole‘. “I’ve seen this image for a while but being able to share these with you all today has been spectacular,” she said in a video tweeted by science journal Nature on Thursday.
Calling the photograph “the beginning” and “another window” into what black holes can tell us, she also explained why the ring of light surrounding the black hole is brighter at the bottom than in other places.
Confident that testing more optimal telescope positions vis-a-vis other algorithms will yield better images of the black hole, she said, “I’m really excited for the future of this (study).
A gendered backlash
While she has earned plaudits worldwide for her role as the lead author of the study and by that logic, “the woman behind the first black hole image“, trolls and sceptics have repeatedly questioned why Bouman is getting all the credit.
Some have even tried to “debunk” the “black hole conspiracy theory” on YouTube to downplay her achievement, while sexist Redditors screamed media bias for making Bouman the (“photogenic”) face of the feat.
The former has ironically exposed how a sexist agenda of its own has hijacked technology: YouTube’s search algorithm found the video promoting the conspiracy that Bouman didn’t deserve as much credit as one of her to be the most relevant (top) search result for her name, until public outrage led to intervention.
Such double standards are not new.
Historically, women have dealt with various hurdles to enter and stay in these fields; they had to fight for access to higher education and laboratories, and were forced to sit behind screens in class “so as not to disrupt male students”. Over the last century, there has been large-scale oppression by omission and very little affirmative action to level the playing field.
A raging issue naturally, diversity in science has only recently assumed front and centre.
Not another forgotten woman in science
No scientific discovery of this order happens as a solo effort. But disbelief and hyperboles are reserved only for women in science, it seems.
Dr Jessica Wade, an advocate for diversity in STEM and a physicist herself, tells The Next Web, “Of course Bouman will not have written all of the code, just like Englert and Higgs are not solely responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson. Instead of discrediting the contributions of Bouman and the countless other women working on the Event Horizon Telescope, we should take a step back and remember she did not ask for this recognition—people all over the world just got tired of men being the only ones who are praised.”
Bouman’s own colleague, who many said was more deserving of credit for his work on the algorithm, came to her defence. He said without Bouman and her contribution to the software, the project would never have been a success.
While many have compared Bouman to NASA’s Margaret Hamilton who developed the code that sent Apollo 11 to space, there are thousands of women whose contributions in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) go unnoticed. From stem cell isolation and X-Ray photography to bullet-proof vests, CCTV cameras, and the first business software program COBOL, women have been behind some of the most crucial scientific inventions; and yet, you’ve probably never heard the names of Ann Tsukamoto, Rosalind Franklin, Stephanie Kwolek, Marie Van Brittan Brown or Grace Hopper.
On some level, this is as systemic as NASA failing to flag off its first all-female spacewalk for the lack of spacesuits. According to Jess Wade, the problem also lies in the lack of evidence or representation, which is why she continues on her mission to add more women in science to Wikipedia.
The impact of role models for young girls has been widely studied by psychologists, especially in inspiring or deterring more women to take up careers like engineering or scientific research. And that’s why, Katie Bouman cannot be, will not be, another forgotten woman in science.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.