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Meet the scientist behind the historic image


For the first time, an image of a black hole has been unveiled by the Event Horizon Telescope, but it’s not what you might think. Here’s why.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

DES MOINES, Iowa –A supermassive black hole that resides 55 million light-years from Earth — and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun — was photographed for the first time by a team of hundreds of scientists who announced the historic feat Wednesday morning.

During the announcement from Washington, D.C., astronomers from Brussels to Santiago to Shanghai celebrated their success in live-streamed news conference.

But Ken Young, one of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics scientists credited with capturing the image — which helps confirm Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity — watched from his home in downtown Des Moines.

‘We’ve now seen the unseeable’: First-ever photo of a black hole revealed

He first saw the image months ago, he said, as did the rest of the team, which also wrote several scientific papers on the topic.

“It was better than I thought it would be,” Young, 61, told the Register of seeing the image for the first time. “I thought there would be a round or two of images where you could convince yourself (a black hole) was there. I think everyone was very pleasantly surprised the shadow of the black hole showed so clearly.”

Most black holes are the condensed remnants of a massive star, the collapsed core that remains following an explosive supernova. A black hole’s gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape its grasp.

Young’s role in the project included collecting data used to create the image. By combining data from multiple telescopes, the Event Horizon Telescope has as much magnifying power as a telescope the size of Earth.

Young helped make one such telescope in Hawaii compatible with the others in Arizona, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Antarctica, because they all operated differently initially, he said.

Now retired and back in his hometown of Des Moines, Young said he continues to work as part of the collaboration that made the first black hole image possible.

First-ever black hole picture: Why the historic black hole image is blurry, and more questions answered

He said the achievement is the result of decades of effort by Harvard’s Event Project Horizon project director Sheperd Doeleman.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” Doeleman said during Wednesday’s news conference. “This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.”

Young said one of the things that makes this image historically important is its contribution to proving Einstein’s general relativity theory.

“General relativity has been tested mostly in weak gravitational fields,” he said, adding no planets nor the sun in our solar system have “genuinely strong” gravity. “It’s useful to test general relativity in strong gravitational fields.” 

Only one instrument, know as the LIGO, has been previously able to detect gravitational waves produced, for example, when black holes collide.

“This, at the most general level, shows that a black hole is what we think it is,” he said.

Young is looking forward to what he said would be significant improvements to the telescopes. With a new telescope installed in Greenland last year, and two more set to be added this year, he said the quality of the images of black holes will become much sharper.

“Right now, the telescope can already produce better images than what was shown today,” he said. “This blurry image is just the first go.”

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Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

Follow Shelby Fleig on Twitter: @shelbyfleig


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