How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole: Watch the 2017 Ted Talk by Katie Bouman, the MIT Grad Student Who Helped Take the Groundbreaking Photo

What trig­gered the worst impuls­es of the Inter­net last week?

The world’s first pho­to of a black hole, which proved the pres­ence of troll life here on earth, and con­firms that female sci­en­tists, through no fault of their own, have a much longer way to go, baby.

If you want a taste, sort the com­ments on the two year old TED Talk, above, so they’re ordered  “newest first.”

Katie Bouman, soon-to-be assis­tant pro­fes­sor of com­put­ing and math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ences at the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, was a PhD can­di­date at MIT two years ago, when she taped the talk, but she could’ve passed for a ner­vous high school­er com­pet­ing in the Nation­al Sci­ence Bowl finals, in clothes bor­rowed from Aunt Judy, who works at the bank.

The focus of her stud­ies were the ways in which emerg­ing com­pu­ta­tion­al meth­ods could help expand the bound­aries of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary imag­ing.

Pri­or to last week, I’m not sure how well I could have parsed the focus of her work had she not tak­en the time to help less STEM-inclined view­ers such as myself wrap our heads around her high­ly tech­ni­cal, then-whol­ly-the­o­ret­i­cal sub­ject.

What I know about black holes could still fit in a thim­ble, and in truth, my excite­ment about one being pho­tographed for the first time pales in com­par­i­son to my excite­ment about Game of Thrones return­ing to the air­waves.

For­tu­nate­ly, we’re not oblig­at­ed to be equal­ly turned on by the same inter­ests, an idea the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Richard Feyn­man pro­mot­ed:

I’ve always been very one-sided about sci­ence and when I was younger I con­cen­trat­ed almost all my effort on it. I did­n’t have time to learn and I did­n’t have much patience with what’s called the human­i­ties, even though in the uni­ver­si­ty there were human­i­ties that you had to take. I tried my best to avoid some­how learn­ing any­thing and work­ing at it. It was only after­wards, when I got old­er, that I got more relaxed, that I’ve spread out a lit­tle bit. I’ve learned to draw and I read a lit­tle bit, but I’m real­ly still a very one-sided per­son and I don’t know a great deal. I have a lim­it­ed intel­li­gence and I use it in a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion.

I’m pret­ty sure my lack of pas­sion for sci­ence is not tied to my gen­der. Some of my best friends are guys who feel the same. (Some of them don’t like team sports either.)

But I could­n’t help but expe­ri­ence a wee thrill that this young woman, a sci­ence nerd who admit­ted­ly could’ve used a few the­ater nerd tips regard­ing relax­ation and pub­lic speak­ing, real­ized her dream—an hon­est to good­ness pho­to of a black hole just like the one she talked about in her TED Talk,  “How to take a pic­ture of a black hole.”

Bouman and the 200+ col­leagues she acknowl­edges and thanks at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, achieved their goal, not with an earth-sized cam­era but rather a net­work of linked tele­scopes, much as she had described two years ear­li­er, when she invoked dis­co balls, Mick Jag­ger, oranges, self­ies, and a jig­saw puz­zle in an effort to help peo­ple like me under­stand.

Look at that suck­er (or, more accu­rate­ly, its shad­ow!) That thing’s 500 mil­lion tril­lion kilo­me­ters from Earth!

(That’s much far­ther than King’s Land­ing is from Win­ter­fell.)

I’ll bet a lot of ele­men­tary sci­ence teach­ers, be they male, female, or non-bina­ry, are going to make sci­ence fun by hav­ing their stu­dents draw pic­tures of the pic­ture of the black hole.

If we could go back (or for­ward) in time, I can almost guar­an­tee that mine would be among the best because while I didn’t “get” sci­ence (or gym), I was a total art star with the crayons.

Then, crafty as Lord Petyr Bael­ish when pre­sen­ta­tion time rolled around, I would part­ner with a girl like Katie Bouman, who could explain the sci­ence with win­ning vig­or. She gen­uine­ly seems to embrace the idea that it “takes a vil­lage,” and that one’s fel­low vil­lagers should be cred­it­ed when­ev­er pos­si­ble.

(How did I draw the black hole, you ask? Hon­est­ly, it’s not that much hard­er than draw­ing a dough­nut. Now back to Katie!)

Alas, her pro­fes­sion­al warmth failed to reg­is­ter with legions of Inter­net trolls who began slim­ing her short­ly after a col­league at MIT shared a beam­ing snap­shot of her, tak­en, pre­sum­ably, with a reg­u­lar old phone as the black hole made its debut. That pic cement­ed her acci­den­tal sta­tus as the face of this project.

Note to the trolls—it was­n’t a dang self­ie.

“I’m so glad that every­one is as excit­ed as we are and peo­ple are find­ing our sto­ry inspi­ra­tional,’’ Bouman told The New York Times. “How­ev­er, the spot­light should be on the team and no indi­vid­ual per­son. Focus­ing on one per­son like this helps no one, includ­ing me.”

Although Bouman was a junior team mem­ber, she and oth­er grad stu­dents made major con­tri­bu­tions. She direct­ed the ver­i­fi­ca­tion of images, the selec­tion of imag­ing para­me­ters, and authored an imag­ing algo­rithm that researchers used in the cre­ation of three script­ed code pipelines from which the instant­ly-famous pic­ture was cob­bled togeth­er.

As Vin­cent Fish, a research sci­en­tist at MIT’s Haystack Obser­va­to­ry told CNN:

One of the insights Katie brought to our imag­ing group is that there are nat­ur­al images. Just think about the pho­tos you take with your cam­era phone—they have cer­tain prop­er­ties.… If you know what one pix­el is, you have a good guess as to what the pix­el is next to it.

Hey, that makes sense.

As The Verge’s sci­ence edi­tor, Mary Beth Grig­gs, points out, the rush to defame Bouman is of a piece with some of the non-vir­tu­al real­i­ties women in sci­ence face:

Part of the rea­son that some posters found Bouman imme­di­ate­ly sus­pi­cious had to do with her gen­der. Famous­ly, a num­ber of promi­nent men like dis­graced for­mer CERN physi­cist Alessan­dro Stru­mia have argued that women aren’t being dis­crim­i­nat­ed against in sci­ence — they sim­ply don’t like it, or don’t have the apti­tude for it. That argu­ment for­ti­fies a notion that women don’t belong in sci­ence, or can’t real­ly be doing the work. So women like Bouman must be fakes, this warped line of think­ing goes…

Even I, whose 7th grade sci­ence teacher tem­pered a bad grade on my report card by say­ing my inter­est in the­ater would like­ly serve me much bet­ter than any­thing I might eek from her class, know that just as many girls and women excel at sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, and math as excel in the arts. (Some­times they excel at both!)

(And pow­er to every lit­tle boy with his sights set on nurs­ing, teach­ing, or bal­let!)

(How many black holes have the haters pho­tographed recent­ly?)

Grig­gs con­tin­ues:

Say­ing that she was part of a larg­er team doesn’t dimin­ish her work, or min­i­mize her involve­ment in what is already a his­to­ry-mak­ing project. High­light­ing the achieve­ments of a bril­liant, enthu­si­as­tic sci­en­tist does not dimin­ish the con­tri­bu­tions of the oth­er 214 peo­ple who worked on the project, either. But what it is doing is show­ing a dif­fer­ent mod­el for a sci­en­tist than the one most of us grew up with. That might mean a lot to some kids — maybe kids who look like her — mak­ing them excit­ed about study­ing the won­ders of the Uni­verse.

via Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women’s Hid­den Con­tri­bu­tions to Mod­ern Genet­ics Get Revealed by New Study: No Longer Will They Be Buried in the Foot­notes

New Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty App Cel­e­brates Sto­ries of Women Typ­i­cal­ly Omit­ted from U.S. His­to­ry Text­books

Stephen Hawk­ing (RIP) Explains His Rev­o­lu­tion­ary The­o­ry of Black Holes with the Help of Chalk­board Ani­ma­tions

Watch a Star Get Devoured by a Super­mas­sive Black Hole

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in New York City tonight for the next install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.