Becomes Famous, Discoverer of New Black Hole Milky Way Reveals His Vision


AT 33 years of age, Caltech assistant professor Katie Bouman is already a veteran of two major scientific discoveries. Computational imaging experts — who developed algorithms to observe distant phenomena — helped create the program that resulted in the release of the first images of black holes in distant galaxies in 2019.

He quickly became something of a global science superstar and was invited to testify before Congress about his work. Now, he’s again playing a key role in creating this groundbreaking image of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy — the cosmic object known as Sagittarius A*.

His working group on the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, which revealed the stunning image on Thursday, was tasked with piecing it together from datasets collected by telescopes around the world. Bouman spoke to AFP shortly after the announcement of the breakthrough.

How do these findings compare to 2019?

The first one, it’s really interesting because it’s the first time and being able to see a black hole for the first time is spectacular. But in my opinion, the most important thing about the Event Horizon Telescope is always photographing Sagittarius A*.

The reason is, we have more information than other observations about what the Sgr A* display looks like we expect. By being able to look at the image, it was much easier for us to see how it matched what we expected from previous observations and theories.

So I think even though it’s the second image we’re showing, it’s actually a lot more interesting. For that reason we could actually use this to do more tests on our understanding of gravity.

Why is it harder to spot a Sagittarius A*?

We collected data for M87* and Sgr A* the same week in 2017, but it took us longer to generate Sgr A* images than M87*. Sgr A* has a lot of other stuff going on that makes it more difficult for us to create images.

We are actually observing the black hole through the galactic plane. That means that the gas in the galaxy actually scatters the image. It makes it look like we’re looking at a black hole through, like, a frosted window, like in a bathroom. That’s one of the challenges.

But I would say that the biggest challenge we face is the fact that black holes evolve very quickly. The gas in M87* and Sgr A* travels at roughly the same speed. However, it can take days to weeks to make a full orbit around M87*, for Sgr A* it evolves minute by minute.

Why are black holes so dazzling?

Black holes are hard to see with what we are used to on Earth, right? The light couldn’t even escape from it, and it bent, warping the space-time around it. It’s just, it’s a mysterious thing and I think it just catches the imagination.

Also read: Snapping a Black Hole, This is How the EHT Supertelescope Works

What’s cooler than working on a black hole? They are very mysterious, right? And the fact that we can create an image of it, something that shouldn’t be visible, I think is very interesting.

What do you predict in the future? Make a movie?

I think this is really just the beginning. Now that we know that we have this extreme gravity laboratory, we can go back, and we can improve our instruments, and improve our algorithms to see more and extract more science.

We made our first attempt to make a film and we made a lot of progress, but we’re not there yet. We feel confident enough to feel this is what Sgr A* looks like from minute to minute. So now we’re going back, trying to add more telescopes around the world, trying to collect more data, so that we can actually show something that we believe in. (OL-14)


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