Making a portrait of a black hole led to sleepless nights and one big thrill
Nancy Wolfe Kotary/MIT Haystack
It’s hard to say which scientist was the first to set eyes on the glowing ring that makes up the world’s first image of a black hole. But astrophysicist Kazunori Akiyama was certainly one of the earliest.
The image, released to the public on April 10, revealed the dark shadow of the supermassive black hole encircled by swirling gas at the center of the galaxy M87 (SN Online: 4/10/19). This was no quick and easy snapshot. Collecting the data involved eight observatories and more than 200 researchers around the world. Making an image out of that data demanded the skills of more than 50 imaging experts (SN Online: 4/10/19). Akiyama, of MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Mass., was a leader of that effort to translate the data into the final, stunning shot.
But before Akiyama and the others could create the image, they had to wait months for others on the Event Horizon Telescope team to analyze and crunch down the five petabytes of raw data — which filled more than half a ton’s worth of hard drives — collected in April 2017. The imaging specialists received the final data in June 2018. “I could not sleep the night before because I was so stressed,” Akiyama says.
He ran his analysis immediately after receiving the data, and within minutes, there it was: the first rendering of the black hole’s shadow. “I was really happy, really excited,” he says.
But then Akiyama started to worry. What if he was the only person to see the black hole’s image? What if the others came up with something different? “After getting the first image, I could not sleep again.”
There was a long slog before Akiyama could be certain of what he saw. To make sure the final image was accurate, and that the results couldn’t be biased by groupthink, the researchers broke into four teams that worked independently and then compared their results. “We told them, don’t talk to each other or anyone else,” astrophysicist Daniel Marrone of the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in an April 10 news conference in Washington, D.C.
The four teams finally met at Harvard University in July 2018 after seven weeks of work. And still, they had to wait a little longer to share the fruits of their labor. “We are extremely careful,” Akiyama says. “In the first day we didn’t compare images.” Instead, they confirmed that each of their pictures was consistent with the data. Then, it was finally time for the big reveal: All the teams saw the black hole’s silhouette.
Akiyama could once again sleep easy. The black hole was real — beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration et al. First M87 Event Horizon Telescope Results. IV. Imaging the Central Supermassive Black Hole. The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Published online April 10, 2019. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ab0e85.
L. Grossman and E. Conover. The first picture of a black hole opens a new era of astrophysics. Science News Online, April 10, 2019.
M. Temming. How scientists took the first picture of a black hole. Science News Online, April 10, 2019.
E. Conover. All you need to know about the history of black holes. Science News Online, April 10, 2019.