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Shining a light

Shining a light

One of the greatest mysteries of the universe – quite literally – came to light with the release of the image of a black hole produced by a team of scientists led by Katie Bouman. The 29-year-old computer scientist led the development of the algorithm (as part of a greater collaboration) that made the breakthrough image possible. The representation shows a halo of dust and gas 500 million trillion kilometers from earth. Dr. Bouman acknowledges that its creation was the realisation of an endeavour previously thought impossible. Indeed; and in more ways than one. This image is produced from a galaxy called Messier 87 where the black hole lies 55 million light years away from us. It is about 100 billion kilometres wide, larger than the entire solar system and 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun. This image created by a network of eight ground-based telescopes across five continents that made up the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project will assist physicists with a better understanding of how black holes function. It also becomes important for testing the theory of general relativity. The black hole is unseeable by itself as light cannot escape from it – what we see is, in fact, its event horizon (a region in spacetime beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer, it is the boundary at which the gravitational pull of a massive object becomes so great that it makes escape impossible). Messier 87, despite being at a much further than the Milky Way was easier to observe due to its larger size.

As much as the details of this accomplishment are fascinating, the proud fact that this breakthrough project was possible because of a woman's work deserves special mention. Not only does it add to advanced studies in science, but also brings forth the repressed reality of women as individuals capable of achieving anything with intelligence, diligence, and, and due and unhindered systemic support. Ms. Bouman, soon to be an Assistant Professor at Caltech, led one of the four teams tasked with turning data of half a tones of hard drives into the image released last week. Indeed she is part of an ensemble cast but the algorithm she developed during her study at MIT was most crucial to this breakthrough. The awkwardness came in fast when she was projected as the face of the black hole image when it was, in fact, a team effort. She expressed in a Facebook post that, "No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work pull off this seemingly impossible feat...I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all." Let us also remember Margaret Hamilton, the computer scientist whose code was crucial to the Apollo missions and Hedy Lamarr, the Nazi escapee sensuous Hollywood star who composed and developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes at the beginning of World War II and a frequency hopping technology to beat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. The principles of her technology are similar to that of Wi-Fi.

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