Visible Women

Meet Dr Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old who made that black hole photo possible

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Moya Crockett
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An algorithm developed by Dr Bouman was essential in creating the history-making image of a black hole, a feat previously believed to be impossible. 

Visibility matters. In male-dominated fields such as science and technology, simply being able to witness accomplished, talented women doing impressive work can have a powerful knock-on effect. Women already working in that industry will feel proud, motivated and seen. Younger women and girls will be inspired. And the stereotype that women simply aren’t suited to a certain kind of work – or just don’t want to do it – will be blown to smithereens.

It’s why Stylist launched our Visible Women campaign in January 2018, to raise awareness of women – past and present – who’ve made a difference to our world. And it’s why we were so excited to hear about Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old computer scientist who was integral in creating the first-ever image of a black hole.

Dr Bouman led the development of a computer programme that made it possible to capture the historic photo of the supermassive black hole, which was released on 10 April.

She shared a photo on Facebook that showed her sitting excitedly in her lab as the image loaded on her laptop. “Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed,” she wrote. 

Taking a picture of a black hole had long been believed to be an impossible task. Regions of spacetime with such a strong gravitational pull that nothing – not even light – can escape from them are, by definition, supposed to be invisible. But the algorithm developed by Dr Bouman helped make this insurmountable feat a reality.

She began working on the algorithm three years ago as a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image,” she told CNN.

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“We didn’t want to just develop one algorithm. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them. If all of them recover the same general structure, then that builds your confidence.”

Overall, an international team of more than 200 scientists played a part in creating the black hole image, but it is Dr Bouman’s story that has captured the world’s imagination.

The Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT shared the photo of Dr Bouman with hard drives of black hole image data alongside another iconic photo of a pioneering female computer scientist. Margaret Hamilton led the team that developed the software for NASA’s Apollo programme, which put the first humans on the moon in 1969.  

In a tweet, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that Dr Bouman should take her “rightful seat in history”.

“Congratulations and thank you for your enormous contribution to the advancments of science and mankind,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “Here’s to #WomenInSTEM!”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Main image: Caltech

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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