Kazunori Akiyama, One of the First Scientists to See the Historic Black Hole Image

Kazunori Akiyama, One of the First Scientists to See the Historic Black Hole Image

Astrophysicist Kazunori Akiyama was certainly one of the earliest scientist was the first to set eyes on the glowing ring that makes up the world’s first image of a black hole.

Recently, the image disclosed to the public, 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). Collecting the data included eight observatories and more than 200 researchers worldwide. 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 concluding, striking shot.

Earlier to Akiyama and the others could create the image, they had to wait months for others on the Event Horizon Telescope team to examine and crunch down the five petabytes of raw data — which occupied 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 states.

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 states.

But then Akiyama thinks, “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 time period 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, stated in a news conference in Washington, D.C.

Finally, the four teams 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 said. “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 relaxed. The black hole was real — beyond a shadow of a doubt.