UMass Boston physics major shares in $3 million Breakthrough Prize for black hole image

UMass Boston physics major and Honors College student Joseph Farah is sharing in a $3 million Breakthrough Prize for being part of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration that took the first image of a black hole in April. When the image was recorded, Farah was the only undergraduate on the 347-member team.

“What a remarkable scientific achievement,” marveled Interim Chancellor Katherine S. Newman. “For an undergraduate to have contributed to a landmark discovery of this importance is nothing short of astounding. UMass Boston is immensely proud of Joseph Farah’s gifts and simply delighted that he has been recognized by this award.” 

It took the synchronization of eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world in Antarctica, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona, and Spain and scientists at 60 institutions from 16 countries on six continents to produce an image of a black hole silhouetted against hot gas swirling around the black hole. The image of the shadow of the black hole in Messier 87 (M87) matches expectations from Einstein’s theory of gravity: a bright ring marks the point where light orbits the black hole, surrounding a dark region where light cannot escape the black hole’s gravitational pull.

“This image is destined to be iconic, I think, just because it was the first time that we’ve seen a black hole, and seeing is believing,” Collaboration Director Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told New Scientist. “We were focused on the science, but it was the resonance of the image across the globe with a curious public that rocked us a little bit on our heels.”

Farah is a coauthor of all six discovery papers as well as more recent publications. Farah gave a presentation about the black hole image in May during UMass Boston’s Physics Colloquium, one of three talks he’s given about his work with EHT. He has spent more than 4,000 hours working in Harvard research groups, doing everything from helping run observations from the Black Hole Initiative to predicting the weather at sites to developing two software libraries.

“Over the past year, I have led an effort into exploring novel methods of image-domain feature extraction. Once we see what we think is a ring in an image, how can we characterize it? What is its size? Width? Asymmetry? These are all important and somewhat open questions within the EHT,” Farah said. “I was tasked with creating a pipeline based on my feature extraction methods to compare hundreds of images simultaneously. It was used by the Imaging Working Group to characterize and detect biases among over 200 images of M87 provided by the four imaging teams.” 

In the spring Farah was one of the 496 individuals nationwide to receive a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the preeminent award for undergraduates in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. More than 5,000 undergraduate STEM students applied for the scholarship for the 2019-2020 academic year.

After graduation, Farah, a junior from Medford, hopes to pursue a PhD in astrophysics.

As for what’s next for the EHT, Doeleman told New Scientist that the group is working on building new radio dishes so they can make videos that show how matter orbits the black hole.

“I think we’re entering an era of precision imaging of black holes,” he said.

The Breakthrough Prize, the “Oscars of Science,” annually recognizes achievements in the life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is among the founding sponsors. Each Breakthrough Prize is worth $3 million.