From The Jetsons to Black Holes: How one Image Changed Society’s Perception of the Universe

When the cartoon, The Jetsons, first aired on television, viewers were enamored with the high tech, almost impossible aspects of a ‘future’ society that the show brought to life. With cars that floated in mid-air, and devices that allowed people to teleport through space, children’s imaginations reveled in the possibilities of futuristic technologies that could bridge space and time. While the future portrayed in The Jetsons is still science fiction, a futuristic new technology has been invented that affirms the origins of our past– indeed the origin of our universe. This technology is The Event Horizon Telescope– a device so powerful it has allowed scientists to capture the first ever image of a black hole.

The concept of black holes has baffled all but a select few physicists, mathematicians and astronomers for over a century. First proposed by Albert Einstein in his 1916 theory of general relativity, black holes were believed to possess such a strong gravitational pull that spacetime (the three-dimensional concept of space plus the added dimension of time) collapses on itself and prohibits any particle from escaping its boundaries. Einstein called these voids ‘black holes’, because, inside of them, space, matter, and time, seemingly vanish– prohibiting any particle from escaping their grasp.

The science of black holes was radically advanced through the work of Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, who offered mathematical proof that the universe was expanding from the singular ‘state’ when it ‘began’ roughly ten billion years ago. Even more impressively, Hawking and Penrose offered mathematical proof that there was, in fact, a singular beginning of time that marks the origin of the universe, and that at the core of every black hole, lies the singularity where time and the universe began. To pass through a black hole is to travel to the origin of time.

Image Courtesy of Kees Scherer via Flickr © 2015, public domain

Despite the brilliance of Einstein and Hawking, it was easy for many in the public to ignore the implications of black holes. After all, the proof lay in complex mathematical theorems. There was no physical evidence to substantiate their claims.  That was true until April 10, 2019, when scientists released the first ever photographic image of a black hole confirming what Einstein could only theorize. These photographs forced even the least sophisticated viewer to grapple with the singularity and the origin of the universe.

In the April 10th photograph, the black hole was revealed to be a massive black circle with a bright orange ring around it, confirming that black holes are, in fact, circular holes in space. The subject of the photo was a black hole known as ‘Messier 87’, which is located in a massive galaxy cluster in the Virgo constellation over 55 million light-years away from Earth. Messier 87 is predicted to be several billion times larger than our sun, causing it to emit huge amounts of energy, and in turn, allowing scientists to be able to capture its image. Using eight radio observatories on six different mountains in the South Pole, France, Chile and Hawaii, scientists were able to detect a radio signal called Sagittarius A which allowed them to capture the image of the black hole. They termed these groups of observation stations the Event Horizon Telescope. For over two years scientists pointed these observatories at Messier 87, harvesting the data from their observations on massive hard drives.

But the endless streams of data required an algorithm to render the data points into a single composite image. Enter Katie Bouman, a young postdoctoral fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who led the initiative to develop the algorithm which eventually made data from Event Horizon Telescope visible to the human eye. It was Bauman who first figured out that it would be impossible to capture the image of a Black Hole using a single telescope. As Bouman said,

‘A black hole is very, very far away and very compact. [Taking a picture of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy is] equivalent to taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon, but with a radio telescope. To image something this small means that we would need a telescope with a 10,000-kilometer diameter, which is not practical, because the diameter of the Earth is not even 13,000 kilometers.’

However, she quickly realized that instead of using one telescope to capture the black hole, she could network multiple telescopes and then reconstitute their distinct data streams into a composite image– not unlike the way the brain fuses the images of each human eye into a single integrated picture.

While getting the different telescopes in place to observe Messier 87 was no small task, developing the technology to connect the images was an even bigger hurdle. So, after years of research, Bouman developed a technology which she termed CHIRP or Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors in order to piece together the separate telescope’s data to create theimage of the black hole. The technology she developed uses machine learning algorithms to ‘identify visual patterns that tend to recur in 64-pixel patches of real-world images,’ and using those features, ‘further refine her algorithm’s image reconstructions’ to create one coherent image. Without Bouman’s tireless ingenuity, it is impossible to say how far away we would be from observing a black hole. Bouman’s work translated the abstract theoretical calculations of Einstein and Hawking into a tangible, observable phenomenon easily comprehensible to the masses.

However, Bouman’s work not only confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it also proved something the public grapples with in other scientific realms every day– the idea that just because a phenomenon can’t be seen, does not mean that it does not exist. If scientists had never discovered how to photograph a black hole, these same black holes would still remain in space waiting to be captured. Perhaps the lesson to learn from this discovery is that science has long been able to capture what our eyes fail to see. Having faith in science and the consensus thinking of the best scientific minds around the world is how we advance as a society. And, who knows? Maybe one day earth will end up looking as it did in The Jetsons after all.



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of Daniel Steelman via Flickr © 2019, public domain