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The Mighty Scientist Who Brought the World the First-Ever Photo of a Black Hole

Dr. Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole.

Scientist Katie Bouman has said that photographing a black hole is "equivalent to taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon, but with a radio telescope." Today, the MIT postdoctoral fellow shared a photo of herself "watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed." Bouman and her team released this first-ever image of a black hole to the public, which is the first direct visual evidence that black holes exist.

More than 200 researchers have been working for more than a decade to capture this historic image as part of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT). The scientists combined the power of eight radio telescopes around the world to collect millions of gigabyles of data about this supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy known as M87 using a process called inferferometry. Even with this vast amount of data, there are still gaps that needed to be filled in — which is where the work of Bouman was critical.

Dr. Katie Bouman pictured with the 5 petabytes of black hole data collected by the EHT project.

Starting three years ago as a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at MIT, Bouman led the creation of an algorithm that took the "sparse and noisy data" collected from telescopes and turned it into an image. Over the past several years, she directed the verification of images and selection of imagining parameters. Ultimately, Bouman and her team developed multiple algorithms to piece together the picture, observing: "We didn't want to just develop one algorithm. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them. If all of them recover the same general structure, then that builds your confidence."

While the EHT program involved hundreds of scientists around the world, junior researchers such as graduate students and post docs led the imaging portion. Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT's Haystack Observatory, says that Bouman "was a major part of one of the imaging subteams," adding that "one of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images. Just think about the photos you take with your camera phone -- they have certain properties... If you know what one pixel is, you have a good guess as to what the pixel is next to it." For her part, Bouman was thrilled to a leading contributor to such a historic scientific breakthrough, while also recognizing that science on this scale is always a team effort: "No one of us could've done it alone. It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds."

Books and Toys Celebrating Female Astronomers

Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Astronomer

Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Astronomer

Written by: Robert Burleigh
Illustrated by: Raul Colon
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

When Henrietta Swan Leavitt was hired by the Harvard College Observatory, it wasn't to observe the skies herself: instead, she was hired as a human "computer," and set to studying photographic plates that male colleagues had taken at the telescope. She spent years measuring star positions and sizes and, over time, discovered that certain stars had a fixed pattern to their changes — a discovery that allowed astronomers to understand the true size of the universe and brought Leavitt recognition as a pioneer of astronomical science. Award-winning artist Raul Colon's illustrations particularly shine in this appealing picture book biography.

Caroline's Comets: A True Story

Caroline's Comets: A True Story

Written by: Emily Arnold McCully
Illustrated by: Emily Arnold McCully
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Caroline Herschel was the youngest child in a family where nobody expected girls to amount to much — especially once she ended up scarred by smallpox and stunted by typhus. Her family used her as a scullery maid, but her brother William saw something different in her, so when he left for England, he took her with him. Together, the astronomy-loving brother and sister built the greatest telescope of their age, which Caroline used to discover fourteen nebulae and two galaxies. She even became the first woman to discover a comet — and the first woman officially employed as a scientist. This picture book biography of the groundbreaking astronomer will inspire kids with her spirit of curiosity and resilience.

Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer

Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer

Written by: Carole Gerber
Illustrated by: Christina Wald
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When Annie Jump Cannon first began working at the Harvard Observatory, it wasn't to look though the telescope — women weren't allowed to use it. Instead, she was hired as a "computer," analyzing and studying the data that men found when using the telescope. Cannon was assigned a challenging task: figuring out how to classify the many stars that newer telescopes and better cameras were able to spot. Cannon's classification is still use today — and she set a record for the number of stars identified and classified that stands to this day! This picture book celebrates Cannon's love of the stars and decades of hard work.

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space

Written by: Libby Jackson
Recommended Age: 7 - 12

This gorgeously illustrated collected biography honors inspirational women who helped fuel some of the greatest achievements in space exploration from the nineteenth century to today! Galaxy Girls pays tribute to fifty pioneering women past and present, from mathematicians to engineers to test pilots to astronauts. Each capsule biography is paired with striking full-page original artwork from the students of the London College of Communication. Perfect for inspiring the space leaders of tomorrow, this stunning book gives this band of heroic sisters and their remarkable and often little known scientific achievements long overdue recognition.

Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science

Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science

Written by: Jeannine Atkins
Recommended Age: 9 - 14

A gorgeously written novel in verse about three girls in three different time periods who grew up to become groundbreaking scientists. Maria Merian was sure that caterpillars were not wicked things born from mud, as most people of her time believed. More than a century later, Mary Anning helped her father collect stone sea creatures from the cliffs in southwest England. Intrepid and patient, she eventually discovered fossils that would change people’s vision of the past. Across the ocean, Maria Mitchell longed to discover a new comet and after years of studying the night sky, she finally did. Told in vibrant, evocative poems, this stunning novel celebrates the joy of discovery and finding wonder in the world around us.

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Written by: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 9 and up

This charmingly illustrated and educational book highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ancient to the modern world. Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection profiles well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!

Women In Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures

Women In Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures

Written by: Karen Bush Gibson
Recommended Age: 12 and up

There are few figures as inspiring as an astronaut: not only are they daring adventurers, they're also intelligent, dedicated scientists! In this book from the Women of Action series, kids will read about trailblazing women from ten different countries who dreamed of traveling to space. Including important figures like the Mercury 13, Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Chiaki Mukai, Kalpana Chawla, and many more, this book shares the obstacles they faced, the wonders they saw, and the influence they've made on the world. For any science-lover or would-be space traveler, this book is full of inspiration.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Learn the often neglected stories of women in science with these 52 engaging capsule biographies! Spanning centuries of courageous thinkers, author Rachel Swaby celebrates women whose specializations range from biology to physics to engineering, from famous names like Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace to lesser-known women like Stephanie Kwolek and Chien-Shiung Wu. While each individual's biography runs for only a few pages, Swaby has done an impressive job of conveying the essence of each scientist's life and work into the profiles, while her light tone urges readers to learn more about each of these groundbreaking women.

Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe

Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe

Written by: George Johnson
Recommended Age: Adults

When aspiring astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt took on the role of a "human computer" for the Harvard Observatory, she worked for a wage similar to what she would make working at a textile mill, despite the expertise and talent necessary. Leavitt was assigned to study variable stars, but her calculations allowed her to discover something truly remarkable: a means to measure the distance to astronomical features like galaxies and nebulae, and a new sense of how large the universe truly is. This true story of the woman who changed the way we see the night sky is an inspiring read not to be missed.

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Written by: Dava Sobel
Recommended Age: Adults

As photography began transforming astronomy, the women who worked as "human computers" would revolutionize our understanding of the universe. "The glass universe" included over half a million photographic plates, pictures of different fields of stars, and the women who studied them — including Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne — would discover novae, design stellar classification systems, and determine what stars were made of. This fascinating story of the hidden history of astronomy celebrates the women whose contributions made our current understanding of the stars and the space they inhabit possible.

Stargazer Lottie Doll

Stargazer Lottie Doll

Manufacturer: Lottie Dolls
Recommended Age: 3 - 8

The weather may be cold, but that's not going to stop Lottie from doing some stargazing! Lottie Dolls are based on the body of a 9-year-old girl and come with accessories that support a wide range of interests. Stargazer Lottie comes with a space-themed outfit, books about space, and even her own tiny telescope! This 7.5" doll is just the right size to join kids on all their adventures.

LEGO Women of NASA Building Kit

LEGO Women of NASA Building Kit

Manufacturer: LEGO
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Build a tribute to some of the ground-breaking women who took American into space with this much-anticipated set from LEGO Ideas! This fan-designed set features astronomer Nancy Grace Roman; computer scientist Margaret Hamilton; astronaut and physicist Sally Ride; and astronaut, physician and engineer Mae Jemison, each as part of a vignette depicting their role with NASA. It's a wonderful way to inspire the women in STEM of future generations!

TK1 Telescope and Astronomy Kit

TK1 Telescope and Astronomy Kit

Manufacturer: Thames & Kosmos
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Get your budding astronomer started with this entry-level kit from Thames and Kosmos. This high-quality 140X refractor telescope features coated glass optics and includes plenty of accessories to get your observations started, including a stand and a variety of eyepieces for different purposes. The included guide teaches you how to properly care for and view through your telescope. For another telescope for young beginner astronomers, check out the Celestron PowerSeeker telescope for ages 5 and up.

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