On Wednesday, an international team of scientists published the first image of a black hole ever. It looked like a SpaghettiO, and yet the image was an incredible scientific achievement that gave humanity a glimpse of one of the universe’s most destructive forces and confirmed long-held theories – namely, that black holes exist. Storing the raw data for the image was a feat itself – tiny portions of data spread across five petabytes stored on multiple hard drives, the equivalent of 5,000 years worth of MP3s. Katie Bouman, a computer scientist and assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, led the development of the algorithm that imaged the black hole. An image of her posing with some of the data drives went viral as observers praised her success.
The massive amounts of data were essential to creating the image of the black hole. Bouman and other scientists coordinated radio telescopes all over the Earth, each pointed at the black hole and gathering data at different times. The data scientists then pieced this information together and used an algorithm to fill in the blanks and generate a likely image of the black hole. The five petabytes of data took up such a massive amount of digital and physical space it couldn’t be sent over the internet. Instead, the hard drives were flown to processing centers in Germany and Boston where the data was assembled. On Reddit’s /r/datahoarder subreddit, a community dedicated to spreading the passion of hoarding vast amounts of data, the drives were bigger news than the scientific achievement itself.