Katie Bouman just made history. This week, the 29-year-old Lafayette, Indiana, native created a global stir when her work in the field of computer science helped create the world’s first-ever image of a black hole. Until now, astrophysicists could only speculate on what a black hole might look like, but thanks in part to Bouman, we now have a computer-generated image of the mass which is otherwise unseeable to the human eye.
Even more amazingly, Bouman has only been working in the field of astronomy and black holes for just six years. Her background is in computer science and electrical engineering. Bauman earned her Ph.D. in computer vision at MIT.
“I hardly knew what a black hole was, but I remember thinking at the end of the meeting that I really wanted to work on this project [Event Horizon Telescope],” Dr. Bouman told PBS, recounting the first time she met with the team’s project directors in 2013. “They were interested in getting someone to start working on imaging, because at the time they were still trying to get the instrument together.”
Black holes are impossible to photograph with traditional instruments; you would need a telescope the size of planet Earth itself in order to photograph a black hole. Instead, Bouman and the Event Horizon Telescope team used data from eight telescopes across the world in order to capture the light — which must travel 55 million light years to reach Earth — emanating from the black hole.
The computer scientist shared a photograph of herself in the laboratory just after the black hole image was created. The photo shows her clasping her hands to her face in shocked glee as the image on the computer screen glows behind her:
It was not long before the photograph gained viral steam, thanks in part to other women who noted the incredible importance of this image and the message behind it for young girls everywhere.
The image of Bouman has become just as well-known as the black hole image she helped to create. Millions of women and girls have been inspired by the photograph of the young scientist achieving this massive discovery, including famous political leaders such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted:
Take your rightful seat in history, Dr. Bouman! 🔭
Congratulations and thank you for your enormous contribution to the advancements of science and mankind.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 10, 2019
As for what is next for the young scientist, Bouman will continue to lead and inspire future generations of women and world-changers. She will soon become an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology.
However, she remains humble and insists that the image of the black hole was not created by herself alone.
“No one algorithm or person made this image. It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe,” she wrote on Facebook.