The 36th Bunyan Lecture: Sheperd Doeleman "Seeing the Unseeable: Capturing an Image of a Black Hole"

Wed October 2nd 2019, 7:30pm
Hewlett 201
The 36th Bunyan Lecture: Sheperd Doeleman "Seeing the Unseeable: Capturing an Image of a Black Hole"


Sheperd Doeleman
Assistant Director for Observation, Black Hole Initiative
Director, Event Horizon Telescope


Sheperd (Shep) Doeleman is an Astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and the Director of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a synchronized global array of radio observatories designed to examine the nature of black holes. He is also a Harvard Senior Research Fellow and a Project Co-Leader of Harvard’s recently established Black Hole Initiative (BHI). The BHI is a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary program at the University that brings together the disciplines of Astronomy, Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy, and History of Science to define and establish black hole science as a new field of study.

Doeleman’s research focuses on the EHT project, which he launched over a decade ago to study supermassive black holes with sufficient resolution to directly observe the event horizon itself.  This research uses the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) that links radio dishes around the world to form an Earth-sized virtual telescope.  The EHT achieves the highest angular resolution possible from the surface of the planet and targets the supermassive black holes at the centers of our own Milky Way, called Sagittarius A* (SgrA*), as well as in Messier 87 (M87), the supergiant elliptical galaxy in the constellation Virgo.  This project addresses several fundamental questions about the Universe: Do event horizons exist? Does Einstein's theory of gravity hold near a black hole?  How do black holes affect the evolution of galaxies?  The EHT project recently succeeded in making the first image of a black hole, revealing the predicted ‘shadow’ feature caused by extreme light-bending by the gravity of M87, which is 6.5 billion times more massive than our Sun.

Doeleman is a Guggenheim Fellow (2012) and was the recipient of the DAAD German Academic Exchange grant for research at the Max Planck Institute für Radioastonomie. He serves as a peer reviewer for the Astrophysical JournalScience, and Nature, among others.  Doeleman leads and co-leads research programs supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) ALMA-NA Development Fund, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the MIT International Science & Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation. He has taught at MIT and mentors students and post-doctoral fellows at MIT and Harvard.

Doeleman received his B.A. from Reed College in 1986, and left soon after for a year in Antarctica where he conducted multiple space-science experiments at McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf.  With an appreciation for the challenges and rewards of instrumental work in difficult circumstances, he returned to complete a Ph.D. in astrophysics at MIT. After visiting to work at the Max Planck Institute as a recipient of the DAAD, he came back to MIT in 1995 for a postdoctoral fellowship, eventually serving as assistant director of the MIT Haystack Observatory, then moving to the Center for Astrophysics in 2012.

Black holes are cosmic objects that are so small and dense, that nothing, not even light can escape their gravitational pull.  Until recently, no one had ever seen what a black hole actually looked like.  The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is a global array of radio dishes, linked together by a network of atomic clocks, that form an Earth-sized virtual telescope that can resolve the nearest supermassive black holes. The EHT detects light that is emitted from gas that is close to the black hole event horizon, and this light travels unimpeded to telescopes on the Earth. Einstein's theories predict that the EHT should see a ring of light and a dark region within that marks the point where light cannot escape.  On April 10th, 2019, the EHT project reported success: we have imaged a black hole, and have seen the predicted ring of light that confirms General Relativity as the boundary of a black hole.  This talk will cover how this was accomplished, details of the first results, as well as some future directions.
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