Women in STEM are incredible things. Despite the challenges that being a woman in STEM brings, they persevere and make some incredible and vital discoveries. Today I am bringing to you the story of Katie Bouman. The leader of the team who made the first image of a black hole- something that we could never see, something that we only knew existed because of science. Join me as we unpack the role of women in stem and why the stories that belong to them matter.
Imagine if you were a young, female scientist. Now imagine you, along with a very small group of other scientists, worked on the first image of a black hole.
Black holes were once an idea that seemed to be straight from science fiction. Deep pockets of the universe that consumed everything that got too close. The object would be crushed by the gravity and turned into long noodles of matter, or simply....nothing. For years and years, scientists had been looking for a way to actually see one for themselves, until in April of 2017, an incredible discovery was made. A network of telescopes and a team of scientists gave us our first image of a black hole. They then released it in 2019.
We need to understand what a black hole is before we know why they are so hard to photograph. In a black hole, the centre is called the singularity, this is an infinitely dense point where the gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. If you have ever seen the first picture taken of a black hole, you will notice that there is light, then a ring of darkness. This ring is the event horizon or the point of no return. It is at this point that your matter is stuck and can no longer escape the pull of the gravity of the black hole. What was it that we saw around the actual black hole? That is light from stars that orbit this black hole and the light as it is being sucked in. This is what lets us know that something is there.
I know that I have read and seen plenty of films that involve a black hole that teleports you to a new planet or a new part of the galaxy, but these black holes or wormholes (if talking about time travel) haven’t ever been found. If you ever dared to pass the event horizon, you would be torn apart by the infinite gravity. You wouldn’t live to see Alderaan or Tantoine, if that may be your aim. But for those of you Sci-Fi fanatics, if you are innocent until proven guilty, then wormholes exist until proven otherwise.
Why was it that the M87 black hole that was chosen for the image instead of the black hole that is in the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy? Well despite this black hole being 55 million light-years away from Earth in comparison to the seemingly minor 25800 light-years away from for the Milky Way galaxy’s black hole, the M87 black hole is 38 billion KMs in diameter, which is far larger than that of the black hole in the centre of the solar system.
The process of taking the actual photo was incredibly complicated, and the level of difficulty is part of what makes this discovery so incredible. The leader of the team “creating” the image was Katie Bouman. Katie is an MIT student studying computer sciences. At the time of leading the team creating the algorithm, Katie was only 28 years old! The way that the team of scientists put the image together was by looking at videos from telescopes around the world. The black hole that I am talking about is the black hole from the M87 galaxy. The ring around it is light from the galaxy being sucked in as well as being warped by the black hole’s gravity. We can see this ring as the image was captured by taking video of this black hole from a set of telescopes called the Eht telescopes or the event horizon telescope. The EHT is an evolving network of telescopes. Observations in April 2017 were carried out with eight observatories in six geographical locations around the globe. The video was filmed over the course of a week, then Katie Bouman led her team to create an algorithm to change the footage from all 8 observatories, into a single picture.
OK. I know this discovery was incredible and remarkably difficult, but why does it matter to me?
We all hear about Issac Newton and Einstein and many of the other men in sciences, but did you know that learning about female scientists is not part of the Australian science curriculum? In an era where statistics are everywhere, show gender gaps in pay, roles in leadership, people in various jobs, men have done incredible things too. I completely understand this but according to the world economic forum, a mere 28.5% of workers in the STEM industry are women. While this number has slowly been increasing, we still have a long way to go. Can you believe that in the past few years, learning about female scientists has been removed from the Australian science curriculum? There is no way that this should have occurred.
Girls are thinking that, well, “we don’t learn about women in science, so it must not be a path for women to choose. Maybe it is only something for men who have always loved science and tech”. We learn about Newton's first law about objects in motion, and have all heard of Einstein. I know I have. Unfortunately, when we think of mad scientists and famous scientists, many people all over the world think of guys with wild hair and glasses, holding chemicals in the air like they are concocting a potion, but there are many people we don’t think of instantly, like Marie Curie (thank her if you had to have an X-ray to fix something)
Women in STEM have so much to bring to this world. If we changed the perception of what a true scientist looks like, maybe, we will have more ladies in STEM, bringing us new ideas to play with, and new medicines to save peoples lives. Black holes have an absence of matter, and STEM fields have an absence of women. Don't let science continue to be a black hole - BECAUSE THESE STORIES MATTER.