Shep Doeleman led the team that took the first picture of a black hole
Stephanie Mitchell—Harvard University
In April, the world saw the first ever image of a black hole. The picture quickly spread around the globe, taking front-page spots in newspapers and going viral online. The image shows an ethereal ring of orange light that has been stretched around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy, 55 million light years away.
It was taken using eight telescopes around the world by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration. The 387 scientists in the collaboration have now been awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in recognition of their work. New Scientist spoke with the leader of the collaboration, Shep Doeleman at Harvard University.
First things first: how does the EHT work?
The EHT basically turns the Earth itself into a telescope, and we do that by using radio dishes all across the globe that all look at the same black hole at the same time. Then we take the hard drives and fly them to one place and use a supercomputer to line up all the data together. When you do that, it’s like having a telescope as big as the Earth.
The EHT’s image of a black hole was published in April
How did it feel to see that image of the black hole for the first time?
It was jaw-dropping. It came in waves for us. We first started looking at the data that we had taken in 2017, and we just saw the raw data in graphs. But even there we could see signs of what might have been a silhouette of a black hole. We split up into four different groups and each analysed the data separately. When we came together and saw that all four teams had seen this ring, that’s when we began to exhale. We knew that we had it.
What do you think is the importance of the image?
This image is destined to be iconic, I think, just because it was the first time that we’ve seen a black hole, and seeing is believing. We were focused on the science, but it was the resonance of the image across the globe with a curious public that rocked us a little bit on our heels.
Scientifically, the first thing that we’ve done is confirmed that Einstein’s theory of gravity holds, to the precision of our measurements, right up to the very edge of a supermassive black hole. We also started to understand black hole accretion. Do black eat voraciously, do they eat timidly, how do they send out these jets, we’ve started to understand that from our observations.
What’s next for the EHT?
Scientists are never satisfied and the EHT is no exception. What we’re focusing on now is building out the telescope array so we can try to make videos that show us dynamically how matter orbits the black hole. We think that understanding how these black holes eat, live, exist over time is crucial to understanding these monsters and how galaxies interact with them.
So we are focusing on building new dishes and maybe even launching telescopes into space. In 20 years I think that we will have space-based platforms so that the EHT will not be limited by the size of the Earth, which will sharpen our images. I think we’re entering an era of precision imaging of black holes.
Why is this so important?
There really are no deeper questions in the universe than how black holes work. Because we know that at their heart they contain this mystery of how do gravity and quantum mechanics work together, which is the deepest question there is right now.
How do you feel about the prize?
I know the whole team feels this sense of accomplishment, and to have your peers recognise it, to have a prize like the Breakthrough prize recognize it, means that it’s not just that we think we did something important – the whole world feels it. I couldn’t be more proud of the team. I just couldn’t be more proud.