First Black Hole Photo

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First Black Hole Photo

Roselind Zeng, Staff Writer

On Apr. 10, scientists released to the public the first ever image of a black hole. Clocking in at 40 billion kilometers wide, and estimated to be around 500 million trillion miles away, the black hole image was captured using eight different telescopes across the globe, all collectively named the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

A black hole is a region in space which captures all light and objects. Not truly a “hole”, it is an incredible amount of matter that is condensed into a very small area, which in turn, translates into a very intense gravitational pull. Its ominous “point of no return”, scientifically named the event horizon, dictates the exact point where an object is beyond saving from the black hole’s clutches.

A collaborative effort of 200 scientists in 20 countries came together for the project to record a black hole located in galaxy M87. The picture itself, a black circle ringed with bright yellowish-orange gas and plasma, is slightly blurred at the edges. In the Netherlands, Professor Heino Falcke of Radboud University explains that what is depicted in the image “is larger than the size of our entire Solar System,” with “a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun… one of the heaviest black holes that we think exists.”

This endeavor was Professor Falcke’s idea, which came to him as a Ph.D. student in 1993. Figuring out that black holes have a specific radio emission bordering them, he realized that these emissions could be detected on Earth using telescopes. He successfully persuaded the European Research Council to fund this project after 20 years. In hindsight, he notes that “It has been a long journey, but this is what I wanted to see with my own eyes. I wanted to know this is real.”

In a ten-day period, the EHT observed the center of M87. Such an impressive amount of data was collected that it could not be sent via the Internet. Rather, the data was shipped on half a ton of hard drives and flown to central processing centers in Boston, US, as well as in Bonn, Germany, for analysis.

Katie Bouman, a Ph.D. student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was responsible for creating the algorithm which compiled the massive quantity of data from the EHT. Without her, there would have been no image at all. While she will soon be accepting a post as an assistant professor at Caltech, the 29-year-old has recently been attacked online by trolls.

Defaming her as having taken more credit than she ought to for her contributions, said trolls have suggested that it was one of her male colleagues, Andrew Chael, who had been the primary developer. In a statement to the Washington Post, Chael responded that “It was clearly started by people who were upset that a woman had become the face of this story and decided, ‘I’m going to find someone who reflects my narrative instead.’” Many more attacks have been started on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, all with mostly sexist biases against Bouman.

Even in light of such events, the black hole photo is still a historical moment. With science advancing so quickly, there is hope in seeing more and more of these phenomenons, as more and more of these innovative scientists push our understanding of the universe.

 

Photo courtesy of TIME.COM