Teamistry Season 1 Episode 02

Photographing a Black Hole

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On April 10, 2019, the world saw what many thought was unseeable. An international group of astronomers and scientists — called The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration — photographed a Black Hole. But while this first-ever image of a glowing orange ring was splashed across the front pages, buried in the back was the amazing story of how the team actually did it. A story of the herculean scientific work and dicey political maneuvering required from the researchers and scientists that spanned countries, continents, and institutions. In the second episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite uncovers the story of a team separated by time zones but united by the collective quest for the greatest cosmic discovery of our times. Shep Doeleman, co-founder of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, tells the tale along with insights from team member and professor of theoretical astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam Sera Markoff. We also hear from Avery Broderick, a black hole astrophysicist at the University of Waterloo, Paul Ho, Director of the East Asia Observatory in Taiwan, and Emily Conover, Physics Writer with Science News.

Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.

Episode Extras


NEWS CLIP: We are delighted to be able to report to you today that we have seen what we thought was unseeable…An international scientific team unveiling the first ever image of a black hole today...

GABRIELA: April 10, 2019. One of the most significant scientific accomplishments in history.

Shep Doeleman:

that's when we knew that we had done something extraordinary.

Sera Markoff:

It's the environment that humanity came to be in and it's the backdrop to our existence. It was that good that it just blew our minds.

GABRIELA: Maybe you’ve seen it, the very first photo of a black hole. It’s a blurry, glowing, orange ring on a black background. But in case you’re thinking that astronomers just pointed a telescope at a certain part of the sky and snapped a picture… well it’s the result of almost two decades of work. And an international group of hundreds of people. A team called The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

Avery Broderick:

I think this was ... really a testament to how large groups can function and work together and do extraordinary things. But at the same time... you'd never envision all the problems that you run up against.

GABRIELA: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams...and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.

GABRIELA: When I was a kid the scariest things in the world were...tidal waves, quicksand, I thought there were just like little pools of quicksand everywhere, and black holes. was it really like a hole that you could fall into for like all eternity in space... What would happen if you came close, would it be like Stephen Hawking said and stretch you into spaghetti? Just so, so terrifying. The funny thing is now I have two boys and they are always asking me the same questions like “How long would you last in a black hole? Would you be conscious for long enough to realize you were in a black hole? Would you freeze? Would you cease to exist completely? Like, what does that even mean?” so being able to photograph a black hole, and be able to understand one a little better that’s something I feel I need to be able to know at some deep primal level so that I can assuage one of my biggest fears but also to be a cool mom.

GABRIELA: So first things first... what the heck is a black hole, anyway?

EMILY: a black hole is a place in the universe where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light.

GABRIELA: That’s Emily Conover, she’s a physics reporter for Science News and the thing is, it’s really hard to wrap our heads around what exactly a black hole is. First of all, it’s not really a hole like we think of it. In fact, we only call it that because as a joke, back in the 60s, physicist Robert H. Dicke compared them to this horrible jail that was known as a “black hole,” because if you went in, you never came out. And the name stuck. But instead of being a hole, it’s actually a tiny, infinitely dense spot in space. And because of all that gravity, light can’t escape it, so we can’t actually see a black hole.

EMILY: The event horizon is what we think of as the edge of the black hole, this sort of surface that surrounds it. And if you were to be so unlucky as to fall into a black hole, once you passed the event horizon, you would not be able to escape, even if you were traveling at the speed of light

GABRIELA: And that’s why it’s called the “Event Horizon Telescope” because since we can’t see anything that gets too close to the black hole, all we can see is the stuff that just skirts around it, on the edge of the event horizon.

GABRIELA: Ok, ok, so that’s what we’re talking about when we say “black hole” and “event horizon.” But until very recently, most scientists agreed that even if black holes existed like we thought they did, we’d never be able to photograph them, for two major reasons. First, even the biggest black holes are so far away, we don’t have telescopes big enough to capture them. And second, even if we did have some supermassive telescope, it would produce so much data...well, we just didn’t have the computer power to process it all. Until this century, when a group of scientists came together...

Shep Doeleman:

it was really around 2006, 2007 that we staged some experiments that showed us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we could potentially image the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy ... So, that really launched the beginnings of the project.

GABRIELA: That’s Shep Doeleman. He works at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and is one of the founders of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration. And even though his team was confident, all they could hope to see was that thin ring around a black hole...

Shep Doeleman:

the Event Horizon that we're looking at is equivalent to seeing an orange on the moon.

And the way we did this was we turned the whole planet into a telescope. It sounds crazy. It is a little crazy because it takes so much work to do.

GABRIELA: It’s kind of mind boggling how much work this would take. I mean, something like this had never been attempted before, so they were writing the manual as they went along. Plus, the financial investment was massive: some estimates have put the project at 50 to 60 million dollars. If it doesn’t work, it will shake the confidence of institutions and governments around the world in these kinds of mega projects. But if they manage to photograph a black hole, it could lead to a wave of new cosmic discoveries. Like watching new planets form in distant galaxies. Or testing the limits of the laws of physics.

GABRIELA: It all starts, as Shep said, with the challenge of turning our planet into a telescope.The way they did that was by networking together telescopes. In other words, by getting telescopes in Hawaii and Mexico, Spain and Chile, Arizona and the South Pole to all focus on one spot in the sky.

Shep Doeleman:

Yeah. So, they certainly don't teach you how to build a big earth sized telescope graduate school.

GABRIELA: One of the first things Shep and his initial small team of astronomers had to do was put aside the astronomy and develop their diplomatic skills

Shep Doeleman:

...that is what took a lot of political maneuvering and a lot of convincing of directors of facilities that normally would do other things, that this was scientifically worthwhile. And that took a lot of effort. We cashed in a lot of brownie points.

GABRIELA: Here’s an example of that early stage of the project.

GABRIELA: We’re in the high desert of Chile, the home of the “Alma Array” telescope. Well, it’s one site but it’s actually made up of over 60 dishes. Shep and his team knew that if they could combine all these dishes, they could increase the sensitivity of the overall Event Horizon Telescope 10 times. But the Alma Array isn’t set up for that sort of thing...

Shep Doeleman:

And we had to approach the Alma administration and the management team very gingerly. Because they did not want to let us rummage around inside the very sensitive electronics of their facility.

GABRIELA: But eventually, through diplomatic negotiations, calling in favours, making promises, the folks in Chile came around to the idea. And that’s when the black hole team realize they had another big challenge, long before they started focusing on capturing the photograph

Shep Doeleman:

So, one of the things that was absolutely essential for doing this,..., was that we had to build a large international team. We had to have experts in engineering, in instrumentation, but also in theory, interpretation, data analysis, from all over the globe.

GABRIELA: Have you ever tried to set up a meeting between folks in a couple of different time zones? It’s a headache. Now, imagine that that’s how you have to work every day, with people all over the world, with different backgrounds, languages, time commitments, everything. The bigger challenge, though, was ensuring that everyone saw how their long work hours contributed to the final results of the project. This is a collaboration superpower I’ll call “Universal Frequency,” not only organizing your international team, but keeping them motivated, so that the project can continue to move ahead.

GABRIELA: In the case of the Alma Array, Shep’s team was joined by Paul Ho, Director of the East Asia Observatory in Taiwan. Paul was tasked with rejigging the tech at the Chilean telescope so it would jive with the Event Horizon project. Universal Frequency was essential because he had to do it all from Taiwan

Paul Ho:

This involved bringing the equipment that are being built in various places like in Japan, in Europe, in the US, and then it comes to an integration center in Taiwan... and then test them and calibrate them, and then ship them to Chile. So there's a huge amount of coordination between the various regions involved in the project in order to deliver these products.

GABRIELA: After six years of work, the Alma Array joined the Event Horizon Telescope. And how else was “Universal Frequency” at play here? Not only Paul Ho’s international group’s success, but seeing the overall project’s power jump ten times. But again, getting these telescopes online was just the start. After all, now they had to actually collect data about the black hole. So Shep’s team reached out to experts like black hole astrophysicist Avery Broderick. He had been putting together simulations of what a black hole event horizon could look like. And then one day Shep walks into his office.

Avery Broderick:

the vivid memory I described is him coming into the office... and saying, "I think these pictures that you keep making and putting in your papers, I think we might be able to make those for real." And that was the moment that I signed on….. And, we never looked back since.

GABRIELA: Avery might sound pretty relaxed about it now, but this was all a huge gamble when they started to build the project. All it would take is for some of these telescopes to not join up or end up pulling out and the entire thing could collapse. Even bouts of bad weather would mean certain telescopes could go offline. And then the team just wouldn’t have the power, the resolution, to gather enough data for the photo. And there had already been so much money, and so much time poured into it… personally, yeah, there’d be frustration and disappointment, but professionally, the ramifications could be worse... as Shep says

Shep Doeleman:

...people had to accept that they were putting their careers at risk because you were really chasing something that we didn't even know existed...You have to get some people who are willing to lay it all on the line in order to push the field forward. And if it hadn't worked out, then we'd be laying brick

GABRIELA: He’s kind of joking about it, but reputations were on the line here. Failure could be a major stumbling block in people’s careers. Part of the risk they were taking, and not just Shep but folks like Avery, was moving out of their comfort zones to build an international team...

Avery Broderick:

people like me, as an astrophysicist, I'm not necessarily trained for is, is collaboration building. It's not just building a small team, but it's building a large group that brings all of those facilities together. And that was the part that I think, at least for me, was the most difficult, is understanding how to navigate a large collaboration of people problems.

GABRIELA: And those people problems weren’t always just about managing schedules and roles. Sometimes the problems got a lot more serious. And dangerous.

Shep Doeleman:

I got a call at 4:00 in the morning saying some of our postdocs were accosted by gunmen on their way to one of our sites. And we made the command decision to shut down that site because the safety of our people was absolutely paramount. But it did cause us to stop observing at that site a few days early.

GABRIELA: Despite the risks they were taking, with millions of dollars, thousands of hours of research and work, and their own careers, they now they faced the biggest challenge of them all: photographing what might not be possible to photograph

GABRIELA: It’s 2017 and the Event Horizon Telescope is up and running. The thing is, they’re not actually photographing the stars. All the telescopes are radio telescopes, so they’re capturing radio waves. Each one collects as much data as it can. The more data, from as many points as possible, the higher resolution the final image can have. And they are harvesting a huge amount of data, as Avery says...

Avery Broderick:

...We had petabytes of data, literally tons of data. There were about half a ton of hard drives on which this data ended up being stored.

GABRIELA: Just to be clear, a petabyte is one million gigabytes. So, yeah, a new challenge. You see, all that data is spread out around the world, from Hawaii to Spain, Mexico to the South Pole. But it needs to be brought together for a whole other team to process and put it all together

Sera Markoff:

The internet doesn't really work for this amount of data...

GABRIELA: That’s Event Horizon Telescope team member Sera Markoff, a professor of theoretical astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam.

Sera Markoff:

...You can't just send it off, especially since some of the stations are in places that are very remote, like the South Pole. And in that case, of course you have to wait actually, until winter is over and planes can get out and you can pack a crate with the discs, put them on a plane and fly them to the computers, which are in either the Boston area or Germany.

GABRIELA: Yeah, even getting the data from place to place is a challenge. Just think about it: so many hours of work have been invested in setting up one of these telescopes, then hoping the weather and technology will cooperate, and then you see the data pouring in. If you lose that data because of a messed up delivery, months of work are gone, setting back the entire project. Imagine the anxiety if something goes wrong, as Shep explains.

Shep Doeleman:

We sent some data back to one of our processing centers in Bond, Germany, and what showed up was a shipment of bolts of fabric. So somewhere there was a bunch of disc drives showing up at a clothing manufacturer, and we got the fabric.

GABRIELA: Oh my god, the wave of nausea I’d get if I opened up that box and the disk drives weren’t there. Like literally looking at months of work lost forever...

Shep Dolman:

Thankfully, we were able to switch these around and we didn't have to make matching jumpsuits for everybody in the Event Horizon Telescope Team

GABRIELA: In this facility in Bond, Germany, there are dozens of mega computers. This is one of the two centres where the petabytes of data collected by the telescopes will be processed…

Shep Doeleman:

And when you bring them together and you compare those recordings, you can create a dataset as though you had a telescope that's as large as the distance between the telescopes... But the cool thing is that those data don't mean anything until they're compared with one another. It's that magical act of combining the data that gives us the image.

GABRIELA: Magical, yes, but not easy, or quick. This is going to be months and months of more work, as another group of people reconstitute the data. Which really means putting a jigsaw puzzle together with no guide. And, where all the pieces don’t fit together perfectly. Plus, it’s not just one group doing it, as Sera explains:

Sera Markoff:

You always want to do lots of double checks, and there's no better way to do this than have completely independent teams do their own analysis with different tools.

GABRIELA: So, yeah, that massive amount of data has been copied so that different groups, in different locations, can process it and put it together into an image

Shep Doeleman:

we purposely did not want to be fooled by group think. If we were all in the same room working on the data, it would have been very easy for us to be lulled into this sense that yes, we were seeing this ring, when it could have been something else. So we split the teams up into four separate groups and each group worked on the data completely independently. They were not able to share any data. They were not in communication with others.

GABRIELA: This is another superpower the team used, splitting into subgroups who could take different paths to solve the same problem. Shep calls this “Constructive Tension.” But he does point out a potential danger with this approach: that people might feel their results could be discarded at the end, when everything’s narrowed down and finalized. The answer is to report on all the methods used, so that each group can see their work in the final manuscript.

GABRIELA:The groups that are being formed to work on the data are yet another new cohort, as Sera Markoff says, mostly graduate students and postdoctoral researchers

Sera Markoff:

I think the key to the success was how many brilliant, especially young people, were involved and helped put this all together. The collaboration had a huge range of expertise, but also a huge range in life stages

GABRIELA: These young people are bringing a new energy to the project. They are also helping the overall team to evolve, by bringing new perspectives, from a scientific point of view. I mean, some of them were still in high school when the Event Horizon Telescope project started. To them, photographing a black hole is not impossible, it’s inevitable

Sera Markoff:

Like most scientific projects, you have kind of the visionary aspect, and the top leadership of course tends to be a bit older, and then the people who are actually pathfinding it and working it out on the ground tend to be more at the PhD and the postdoc level. That was the people who did the majority of a lot of the really hardest part of this project, and they were just amazing.

GABRIELA: They were also recognized for their work, to make sure they knew their contributions mattered.

GABRIELA: And so finally, after a decade and a half of work, Shep remembers when things started to fall into place...

Shep Doeleman:

there was an evening banquet in May of 2018 and some of the postdocs and graduate students came to me and they showed me just the raw data in a plot, not an image, but a plot. And we looked at this and we realized right away that there were some key signatures in the structure of this plot that showed us that there was something very interesting there. We didn't know if it was a ring yet, but we saw right away that there were some ring-like tendencies to the data. That got us very excited.

GABRIELA: It’s important to keep in mind here that for many years, based on astronomers’ understanding of light and gravity, people had been guessing and building simulations of what an event horizon might look like. And they all kind of look the same: a bright orange ring around a black circle. So as the image is constructed, if it looks totally different from these simulations that could mean something has gone really wrong, either with the Event Horizon Telescope—over a decade of work—or the decades of theorizing about black holes. But as the processing of the data is coming together, there’s a growing sense of excitement on the team, as Avery says...

Avery Broderick:

And we were watching them go through this process, and at the same time getting ready. Because we knew they were close, we knew that there was an image to be seen, and we had some feeling already. There were some clues that it was going to look amazing and it was going to look like what we kind of thought it should look like. And so we were already well underway years underway in getting ready to interpret that image. And so we were watching this with bated breath wondering how good is it going to be? Are we going to see a ring? Is it just going to be a slight dimple in the center?

GABRIELA: The anticipation is building that any day now they will finally see what scientists thought, until only recently, was unseeable. A black hole. But other than the steps they have taken so far and all that real, tangible hard work, what else is at play here that has led to their success? One word keeps coming up, “trust,” first from project leader Shep Doeleman...

Shep Doeleman:

when you have something this complicated, something this distributed, you really have to trust in the team that you've built. And you're trusting that you have vetted procedures that will allow this huge complicated machinery to produce something new and true. We didn't know that we could really pull this off, but we had confidence that we had the right people and that we had the right team. What I like to say is that …we jumped off cliffs and invented parachutes on the way down, but there's no other team I'd rather jump off a cliff with than these guys.

GABRIELA: After months of work processing unimaginable amounts of data, the four separate groups have come up with their results. And, thankfully, incredibly, they all arrive at the same image. But before we all get to see the black hole, the entire Event Horizon Telescope team had to share it amongst themselves. And it happened with folks all over the world on a video conference call.

Sera Markoff:

I can't remember if I was in my pajamas, it was definitely in the evening in European time

GABRIELA: But Sera does remember her reaction, the first time she saw the image pop up on her screen:

Sera Markoff:

there was that moment of like, "Is this really the black hole or is this just another simulation of a black hole?” Because it looks so much like these theoretical simulations that we'd been doing

GABRIELA: Avery had the same reaction:

Avery Broderick:

I was asking them, "Did you guys put this in there? Is this real?"

GABRIELA: But, of course, it was real.

Sera Markoff:

and I was like, "Holy crap, you know, it is really a black hole", I'm actually seeing this thing that I've been studying since I was 20 or whatever. It was extremely, yeah, it was very emotional and it was very powerful moment I think for everybody, and very exhilarating as well.

GABRIELA: It certainly was for Shep who, like Sera, had been working on this for the better part of his life...

Shep Doeleman:

I've been doing this since the beginning, 20 years or more. And the only thing that's driven me through this has been a sense of optimism, the sense that it was possible and that we had the right group to do it. And then we had the resources, and if nature just cooperated that we could pull it off and to see it, one of the great predictions of modern physics confirmed so clearly. And that was really emotional.

EMILY: So I was at the press conference in Washington DC where they announced the photo and it was very suspenseful

GABRIELA: That’s Emily Conover, the science writer from the top of the show, remembering April 10, 2019, when the photo was first unveiled to the world.

EMILY: There was definitely wonder, I mean, to imagine being able to take a picture of a black hole. I never would have predicted that we could have been able to do that. When I was a kid imagining ‘what are these weird black holes?’, I never would have imagined seeing a picture of one one day. I think that is the case that, you know, you're looking at the real thing. That is really what the universe is telling you. That is what a black hole is.

GABRIELA: For Shep Doeleman, it took another day for the significance to sink in.

Shep Doeleman:

When we saw this image on the front page of all the newspapers around the world, that's when it hit us that it meant as much to other people as it did to us.

GABRIELA: And that, of course, is the bigger picture. Not only what this photo means to the world of science, but what capturing it means to the world, as Sera says..

Sera Markoff:

it's really important to remember that people from different nationalities and different countries can get together, and work together, and do something that is just...amazing to have achieved

GABRIELA: Despite the challenges of building and working with a huge, international team, this group managed to do something that until recently was considered impossible. Something so amazing that it brought the whole planet’s attention together, and as Shep points out, that just doesn’t happen much any more

Shep Doeleman:

in a time when things are dividing us as people. This was something that by its very nature drew us together and it really couldn't have been done I think without the combined efforts of a global team. And that's important because we're going to be facing a lot of challenges in the coming decades, even centuries that are going to require a global effort to solve. and if this can be any kind of indication that we can work together to solve outrageously hard problems that we didn't even know if we could solve, then it's been a good day's work for us too on that score.

GABRIELA: It’s been a year since the black hole photo was revealed to the world. And what is the team working on now? An even bigger challenge: capturing video of a black hole. If they can do that, we can see what happens to matter as it’s being sucked into the Event Horizon. Spaghetti, anyone?

GABRIELA: There were some key superpowers used to motivate a huge international team and to recognize that team’s efforts. To find out more about those strategies, check out the “extras” page at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. And please subscribe so you don't miss what’s coming up next - how a team at the car company that revolutionized how cars were made...managed to do it again seventy years later. That’s next time on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian.

GABRIELA: Thanks for listening.