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Harvard Scientists Among Those to Win Prize for First-Ever Black Hole Image

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics where researchers worked to produced the first ever picture of a black hole.

The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration — celebrated this April for producing the first-ever image of a black hole — received the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics Thursday.

Astronomy lecturer Shep S. Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics led the team of 347 prize winners, among whom the three million dollar award will be evenly apportioned.

Nearly three hundred scientists operating across 60 institutions and 20 countries produced the seminal and singular image, according to a press release.

Several dozen of these collaborators were Harvard affiliates, according to Doeleman.

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“It's been a 20 year odyssey to realize this black hole imaging breakthrough,” he said. “The team here at Harvard, really, has become part of the nucleus of a lot of the effort.”

EHT postdoctoral fellow Dominic Pesce said that he is gratified that the Breakthrough Prize committee recognized each individual member of the group.

“It's not common to see such...large prizes and such big name awards really acknowledging the work of an enormous group of people at the level of individual members of that group,” he said. “To me, that was really something special.”

Physics, Philosophy, and History of Science Professor Peter L. Galison ’77, a collaborator on EHT, said coordination between hundreds of scientists is standard in particle physics, though more “unusual” in astronomy.

“It's not a trivial matter to get all those people come to meetings and talk to each other and be persuaded that the result is not an artifact,” Galison said.

Galison added that imaging the black hole, located 53 million miles away, required “a complicated coordinate of activity.” The project — which he analogized to someone in Boston reading the date on a quarter in Los Angeles — entailed coordinating telescopes across the globe in order to imitate a lens the size of the Earth.

Center for Astrophysics electrical engineer and EHT collaborator Jonathan Weintroub said that the team started small and grew as telescopes were added to the project.

“That was just this sort of tight knit group of people trying to do something extraordinary. And then what happened is we needed more telescopes to make the image,” he said. “And so representatives of all those sort of cultures and regions of the world came on board.”

Inaugural member of Harvard’s Black Hole Institute and EHT collaborator Michael D. Johnson said the sheer scale of collaboration was both “challenging” and “rewarding.”

“We really had to find these airtight arguments where 200 people, or 300 people, could agree on a single takeaway,” Johnson said. “Retaining that group consensus is a really challenging process. But in the end, it's also tremendously rewarding, because there's really a sense of unity.”

Lindy Blackburn, radio astronomer and EHT data scientist at the Center for Astrophysics, said that the group was “humbled” by the thrill the image elicited among the public.

“I don't think any of us could have anticipated the level of interest we got from the public,” he said.

Johnson said that he was also pleased with the general interest the image piqued.

“I think, as researchers, we’re always driven by intrinsic sense of wonder for these problems, but they’re not generally broadly appreciated,” he said. “Usually, you need a Ph.D. just to understand why someone cares. Here, 10-year-olds can find inspiration in the same way as the researchers who are working on it.”

Astronomy Ph.D. student and EHT collaborator Daniel C. Palumbo said that he is grateful to have participated in such a rare “public-facing research experience.”

“I think there'll be a generation of astronomers or simply appreciators of the night sky who see this image and imagine what might be peaking out us from across the cosmos,” he said.

Despite the public appreciation, Black Hole Initiative fellow and EHT collaborator Maciek S. Wielglus said the team was nonetheless surprised to receive the Breakthrough Prize.

“People didn’t really expect this type of recognition — maybe at least not just a few months after the discovery,” Wielgus said. “Usually big discoveries are waiting many years to get the recognition.”

Doeleman said more big discoveries are on the horizon.

“How are we going to take this still black hole camera, and turn it into a motion picture camera? How are we going to make the first movies of a black hole?” he asked.

Doeleman will accept the Breakthrough award on behalf of his team Nov. 3 in a televised ceremony, termed the “Oscars of Science,” according to the press release.

— Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

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