The release last week of the first image of a black hole was a triumph for science, technology, and humanity. As Shep Doeleman, the leader of the group that produced the image, said at the unveiling: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.”
The image quickly spread over news media. Even late night talk show hosts joked about it. Another image also went viral — a photo of Katie Bauman, a computer scientist who worked on the project, taken at the moment that she and the other researchers first saw the image of the black hole that the project had produced. She has her hands in front of her mouth, with a delighted, amazed smile on her face. The photo captured the joy of scientific discovery.
Bauman was careful to credit the team — not herself — for the image. But word quickly spread that she had written the algorithm the team used to produce the image from data collected at radio telescopes around the world. As a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field, she quickly became an inspiration for women in STEM.
That’s when internet trolls went after her. They claimed (incorrectly) that another programmer, Andrew Chael, who just happens to be white and male, had actually written nearly all the code attributed to Bauman. The trolls argued that she had been put forward as a hero by people with a left wing, feminist agenda, not because she deserved the attention.
But Chael — the trolls probably didn’t realize he is an openly gay man — fought back. He tweeted that he did not write “850,000 lines of code” as the trolls claimed. And he added, “… if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away and reconsider your priorities in life.”
Bauman had written an algorithm to combine images, but, it turns out, it wasn’t one the team used. She did play a large role in the collaboration, however. She pushed the importance of testing all algorithms used to ensure people weren’t forcing them to create an image that wasn’t real but matched what the researchers wanted to see. She helped root out bias and keep the team honest.
The technical challenges were indeed daunting. The black hole is located about 55 million light years from Earth at the center of the nearby giant elliptical galaxy M87. It has a mass of 6.5 billion suns jammed into a space about the size of our solar system.
Because of its relatively small size and immense distance, researchers likened getting an image of M87’s black hole to taking a picture of a doughnut on the surface of the Moon from the Earth.
To see something that small, astronomers needed a telescope with a diameter about the size of the Earth. No such instrument exists. But by combining data taken at the same time by observatories around the world, researchers created a virtual telescope that had so much resolution it could have read a text on a cellphone in New York City from a sidewalk café in Paris. That was good enough to “see” the M87 black hole.
Over 10 days in April 2017, researchers pointed their telescopes at M87. They generated 5 petabytes of data, the same amount of information, according to researcher Dan Marrone, as “the entire selfie collection over a lifetime for 40,000 people.”
For two years, scientists and programmers worked to combine and analyze the data from the different telescopes. Four separate teams of researchers worked independently to create an image, each using a different algorithm to reduce bias. The teams were forbidden from communicating with one another during their work.
When the four teams finally compared the images of M87 each had produced, they were stunned to see that all showed the same thing — a glowing ring around a black shadow, with a brighter segment in the southern part of the ring.
That was when the photo of Katie Bauman’s delighted reaction was taken, the photo that went viral and brought out the trolls.
That ugliness, however, couldn’t diminish the amazing work done by this team, work that culminated in the stunning first image of an “unseeable” black hole.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.