Black hole photo: Back to the lone genius in science?

From one of our most intelligent citizens, a salute to the scientific genius working alone:

Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize, published just last year, said that the age of a Katherine Clerk Maxwell discovering Maxwell’s Equations mostly on her own was over. The book describes a paper regarding Higgs boson discovery with 6,225 co-authors.

Readers: What is the significance of this “photo” (it is all false or pseudo color since the emissions were not in the visible portion of the E-M spectrum)? What is the actual “advancement of science”? (Rare break from Trump hatred from the NY Times: article on how the experiment worked. The core article on the announcement doesn’t suggest that any in-question hypotheses were confirmed or rejected. I asked a physicist friend: “it’s not exactly the event horizon. It’s the photosphere seen on edge. With limb darkening, it appears as a torus. … eventually you might use images like this to see how general relativity plays out over time. In other words, make a movie called Event Horizon (after they see the actual horizon that is). … It confirmed part of a theoretical prediction. One that was made by a scientist other than Einstein.”)

(Separately, my Facebook friends who were energized by this example of female nerddom (a postdoc identifying as a “woman” writing software! And earning 1/8th the income of a same-age dermatologist (postdoc salary provides less after-tax spending power than obtainable by having sex with a primary care doctor in Massachusetts)) decided that they needed to add a photo of another successful female-identifying programmer. They had to reach back only half a century to find one:

In 1969 Margaret Hamilton wrote the onboard software code for Apollo 11 and coined the term “software engineering.” Now 50 years later, Dr. Katie Bouman’s algorithm enabled the connecting of telescopes around the world to take the first photo ever of a black hole. Here is a photo of Margaret Hamilton with the reams of code, and one of Dr. Bouman with the hard drives containing the 5 petabytes of data generated. Cheers to #WomeninSTEM – now imagine what we could do if they let women run the world! (Photo credit @floragraham). #blackhole #bigdata #IoT

The folks who were excited to see someone identify as female sitting at a desk typing code took their last science class in high school, would consider attending a computer science course to be a physical assault, and would flee if offered the opportunity to spend 45 minutes learning about how their smartphones work.

(There seems to be some question regarding whether Margaret Hamilton was the sole author of the big stack of assembly language code next to which she stands. In 2014, for example, the Boston Globe ran an obituary on Richard H. Battin:

Dr. Battin, who developed and led the design of the guidance, navigation, and control systems for the Apollo flights … As astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were approaching the Sea of Tranquility on that historic July 20, 1969, flight, Dr. Battin was at Mission Control in Houston with MIT Instrumentation Lab founder Charles Stark “Doc” Draper.

See also a 2016 discussion on Hacker News on the question of whether this Battin guy contributed anything significant.))

Is it safe to say that the 19th century lone genius of science is back?

27 thoughts on “Black hole photo: Back to the lone genius in science?

  1. Worth noting that non-US media sources had a rather different take on this discovery.

    For example:

    references Mareki Homma, who is apparently the originator of the sparse modeling approach that produced the image.

    references Prof Heino Falcke, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, who proposed the experiment and is chair of the EHT Science Council.

    None of the non-MIT sources mention Dr. Bouman.

    I have seen various analyses of the github code, and they do not appear to indicate that she did a large percentage of the work. But without a detailed review (and knowledge of whether there was additional off-github collaboration) it is hard for anyone not deeply familiar with their working arrangements to make a useful judgment.

    • Off Topic: I was amazed by this, at the first link, last paragraph:

      “As the telescope is located in a desert at an altitude of 5,000 meters [about 16,400 feet, Chile, the ALMA telescope], where low atmospheric pressure prevents the operation team from using hard discs to read out data, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan also provided technologies necessary for sending data to a facility at a lower altitude using light fiber cables.”

      I’m sitting here wondering why the altitude would preclude using what I assume they mean to be standard hard drives with rotating platters…and…then it dawns: It’s the flying height of the heads! The atmospheric pressure is a little more than half sea level and that must render those drives unusable.

      “Because disk drives depend on the head floating on a cushion of air, they are not designed to operate in a vacuum. Regulation of flying height will become even more important in future high-capacity drives.[4]”

      Note to self: don’t bring a standard hard drive to 5k meters altitude and expect it to work.

  2. Gender equity? 92% of the 928k lines of code in the black-hole imaging project were written by white male, “achael”. The project’s GitHub repo shows Dr. Katie Bouman’s (“klbouman”) 2k lines (0.3%) of contributions included: “ability of change the fontsize of the colorbar”, “make it possible to have scientific notion in the colorbar”, and adding code written by “Jospeh”.

    • Yes, but Andrew Chael is gay. This is a monumental moment for gay astronomers everywhere.

  3. If 200 scientists do an experiment and there is no young woman to take credit for it all, did it even happen?

    • That’s a engineering conference paper from 2016 ( says “IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), 2016”). It is not a report of the overall (science) experiment. If that is the paper to which folks on the web are referring, this becomes another example of how Americans lack sufficient education to distinguish between science and engineering (“them there are nerds”?).

      (Actually, this paper does reference (12 and 13) papers in Science and Nature from the science side of the EHT team:

      So by reading the introduction to this engineering paper, a person with a technical education would be able to learn about the overall scientific scope of the project and read the names of the people who were leading it in 2008 and 2012.)

    • @philg female wrote one paper all by herself and some code too. Who cares engineering or science? She is amazing and inspiring to all girls and women. Wise man say women are new children.

  4. Phil, why do you hate women? This empowerment press victory lap is an essential step towards getting more women in STEM occupations, where vile, sexist males have been bullying them for decades.

  5. FWIW the authors on the project papers (the The Astrophysics Journal Letters papers) appear to be in alphabetical order of last name, which is not uncommon for very large teams.

    On the other hand, I’m shocked, shocked I tell you!, that CSAIL (or MIT) would ever be a bit biased towards self-promotion. Why, the very idea of MIT communications (and I get at least three emails from them every week telling me all sorts of reasons why MIT needs my money and deserves it unquestioningly) would obscure the role of non-MIT players on a 200-plus person project, that’s ridiculous.

    (Also in the CSAIL comms there’s no mention that Prof. Bouman of MIT is about to become Prof. Bouman of Caltech, an oversight that I’m sure will be corrected before the ‘give us money’ letters go out next Monday.)

  6. “That’s a engineering conference paper from 2016. It is not a report of the overall (science) experiment.” Your point being…? So she did some engineering work upon which the science relied or took advantage of in a critical way (as in, no engineering work = no science result). What’s wrong with that? I mean, I’m not in favor of putting people on pedestals, this woman or anybody else—this is a group project if ever there was one— but if you’re looking for an example of an undeserving person, I’d say you need to find another example because it’s pretty clear this woman has done some real work with her PhD (I’m still wondering exactly what you’ve ever used your PhD for).

    • Nobody said this woman was undeserving of credit for code that she wrote. Trolls are saying she is undeserving of MSM credit for the entire project.

    • The most important point of the original post (at least to me) was that Americans, including AOC, bought into the idea that a single individual could be said to be primarily responsible for an experimental physics achievement. That they believed it was a young non-physicist who had resurrected the pre-20th century way of doing physics, rather than one of the mature physicists who were nominally in leadership positions on the project, made it even more interesting.

    • AOC thanks her for her “contribution to science” – the “primarily responsible” part is just something you made up.

    • “Congratulations to Katie Bouman to whom we owe the first photograph of a black hole ever.”

  7. “I love women! That’s why I try to get them to be smart and go to med school!” –
    And yet your brother went to med school and you studied CS, but who is monetarily wealthier?

    The grass is not greener, just a different shade of brown Philip.

    • Georg: Are you sure this isn’t an example of selection bias? Also not the same categories? (I suggested medical school as an alternative to a career in science, not as an alternative to engineering and I have worked as an engineer, not a scientist.)

      Why not take members of the MIT Class of 1982 and compare those who went to medical school to those who worked in science? I had the opportunity to do this as class secretary. Median income for the docs was about 4X the median for the scientists (maybe 3X the median for those who stayed in engineering and the docs were much more likely to still be at prime earning capacity at our 35th reunion (many of the engineers were unemployed and unemployable by their mid-50s)).

  8. I’m not an expert, but the torus is caused more by limb “brightening” than “darkening.” The torus is synchrotron emission from relativistic material circling the black hole just above the event horizon. Synchrotron emission preferentially beams light ahead of its direction of travel, causing the torus to be brighter on one side where the orbiting material is viewed “head-on.” Not much light is beamed sideways so there’s little emission seen from material crossing the center. It’s not really correct to call the torus a photosphere — a true photosphere like in the sun would emit light more evenly in all directions and be brightest in the center.

    From measurements of orbiting stars, the core of M87 is known to contain several billion solar masses. If there were something like a super star cluster at the center, it would emit a lot of light. Instead, the EHT image shows the dark “shadow” with the very compact size expected for an event horizon of a 6.5 billion solar mass black hole as predicted by general relativity, agreeing with the dynamical mass. It’s a direct confirmation with a simple image of a theory that came out of Einstein’s mind, and science doesn’t get much better than that.

    The NSF press conference emphasized that the project required a large team effort: the image reconstructions were performed by four separate teams working independently in order to be quadruply sure that consistent results were obtained. Installing the receivers and atomic clocks at multiple sites including the South Pole required hardware experts, and the interpretation required GR theorists. So, I think the combination of individual talents and teamwork from men and women required to pull this off is the most impressive part of this story.

  9. Based on the goo tube videos, she was on 1 of 4 teams around the world. Each team submitted a different photo based on their own image processing algorithm. If all the photos looked similar, the algorithms would be considered validated. The mass media coverage was very different than reality.

  10. 53.49 million years from now or so, will anyone in the M87 galaxy be able to discern the signal generated by all the internet activity related to the controversy over the images of the black hole at the center of their galaxy? Will they understand American gender identity politics and its effect on VLBI image processing on Earth in AD 2019? It’s greater than the effect of peanut butter on the rotation of the Earth, that’s for sure.

    Nice work by @Hayward. If he’s not an expert, then I’m barely conscious.

    Nevertheless I was woke enough to read Bouman, et. al’s paper and enjoyed the parts of it I could understand while learning quite a bit. It refreshed my memory of VLBI astronomy and its image processing techniques, and it was organized and written so that even a relative layman like myself could comprehend it even without having full command of the mathematics. I can’t evaluate its merit beyond saying that it appears to be a meaningful and significant contribution. I could use layperson, I guess, but I’m a layman. And I didn’t once think of her gender, which I hope doesn’t make me a badman, because it shouldn’t.

    If the team gets the Nobel for this accomplishment, I do hope they acknowledge Einstein given the history of his prize in 1921 (which he didn’t receive until 1922). It’s also interesting to see the Nobel Prize website today. People should take a look!

    This was a good thread. A lot of important points were made but I confess to being very weary of this stuff, at least all the identity politics, because of my own background with it. Anyway, let’s see what happens with the Nobel, it should be very interesting. The discussions surrounding nominations are supposed to be quarantined for 50 years. Assuming anyone survives that long, they’ll be fascinating for the augmented post-humans living in 2070 to review in the Internet of Thoughts.

    • “part of the reason that some posters found Bouman immediately suspicious had to do with her gender.”

      She is not an astrophysicist and was in high school when this astrophysics project started.

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