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GNU GPLv3 At the center of the Black Hole Image


Scientists have finally seen what could not have been seen – a black hole. As fascinating is the fact that we can now ‘see’ a black hole, the story behind this achievement is even more fascinating.

It’s a story of victory of science in the political era of science denials. It’s a victory of diversity in the era of homophobia and sexism. It’s a victory of free software in the era of…well, we live in the era of free software.

The image of Pōwehi, is the result of a very diverse group of people (which comprises of 40% women) from around the globe working together. It’s incredible that one of the two faces of this story is a woman, Katie Bouman, and the other one is a gay astronomer Andrew Chael.


Andrew Chael and Katie Bouman. (Copyright – Andrew Chael)

As Katie Bouman, one of the many scientists who work on the project wrote on her Facebook page, “The image shown today is the combination of images produced by multiple methods. No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.”

Now, something for the Free and Open Source fans. The image was created using software defined telescopes that virtually networked physical telescopes installed in different parts of the world to create a telescope as big as Earth.

Free and Open Source software was at the heart of this image. The team used three different imaging software libraries to achieve the feat. Out of the three, two were fully open source libraries – Sparselab and ehtim.

Sparselab is a Python Library for Interferometric Imaging using Sparse Modeling. ehtim is a Python module for simulating and manipulating VLBI data and producing images with regularized maximum likelihood methods.

Richard M Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project will be glad to see that the source code for both libraries is released under GNU GPL v3.  Yes, you read it right – GNU GPL v3.

As a science fiction writer, I often meet leaders from the scientific community whether it’s with the CTO of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab or teams from CERN. It’s really incredible to see how much open source and emerging technologies they are using. Which means we will never run out of stories at TFIR.

Our interview with CTO of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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