Scientist who helped image black hole has her credibility questioned by
sexist internet mob*How the first image of a black hole turned into a
lesson on sexism in STEM* Nicole Karlis
<> April 16, 2019 11:00PM (UTC)

Few could have anticipated that the historic release of the first image of
a black hole
would devolve into a public spectacle of sexist outrage — though such are
the times we live in, in which literally every news item is picked apart by

On April 10, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT) presented the
first-ever direct image of a black hole. The blurry composite embodied over
two centuries of advances in mathematics, science and electronics. Prior to
the image, only artistic illustrations were available to depict the
mysterious singularities that warp the spacetime continuum by virtue of
their huge masses, producing such gravitational force that not even light
can escape. Shortly after the EHT presentation, MIT tweeted an image of
Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old computer scientist whose work was crucial to
the project, during the moment the first black hole was processed.

“Here's the moment when the first black hole image was processed, from the
eyes of researcher Katie Bouman,” MIT's largest research lab, the Computer
Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab, said on Twitter.

Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow with the Event Horizon Telescope and a
forthcoming Assistant Professor in the Computing and Mathematical Sciences
department at the California Institute of Technology, looked ecstatic in
the photograph sitting in front of her computer, her hands covering her
mouth in awe. The photograph instantly made her the face of the project —
which is why an informal coterie of sexist trolls kicked off a sexist
investigation to invalidate her contributions.

A familiar story arc followed. Fake Twitter accounts were set up in her
name. Men on Twitter dismissed her scientific contributions as mere
feminist posturing. And there was a debate over whether or not she was
worthy of a Wikipedia page

It is hard to imagine the same response would have followed if a white man
was in that picture instead of Bouman. Salon reached out to Bouman for an
interview, but a representative for MIT said she was no longer taking
interviews with the press.

It is no secret that women are underrepresented in science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. According to 2016 statistics,
women represent only 30 percent of the STEM workforce
Often their contributions go unnoticed, as history has shown us. For
example, when people think about the mission that brought Apollo to the
moon they most likely think of astronaut Neil Armstrong, not, say, Margaret
Hamilton, who developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo space
program. Placing Bouman at the center of the discovery may have been a
conscious optics choice for the MIT research lab, given how STEM fields are
often criticized for a lack of gender equality, but the public backlash was
almost certainly unanticipated.

Amid the chaos, Bouman wrote in a Facebook post
“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.
It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity
to work with you all.”

Her response was gracious, and emphasized how big scientific projects
happen through collective collaboration. As many have pointed out, her
response brings to light the false glorification of the “lone genius
trope in STEM, in which one person is responsible for an ingenious
creation. (Even Isaac Newton was famously was uncomfortable with the way he
was treated as a singular hero for contemplating gravitation; "If I have
seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," he wrote in a
letter to fellow natural philosopher Robert Hooke.) Over 200 people worked
on the black hole imaging project, and Bouman bringing this to the
attention of the public was not an attempt to deflect her credibility or
contributions, but to rather remind people that something this monumental
in the science world can’t happen without a lot of brains. As Bouman
described in her 2016 TED Talk,
she likened herself to a forensic sketch artist, but instead she created an
algorithm to image a mystery in the universe.

Yet the worst thing about this entire saga is that it may instill fear in
young women who want to pursue a career in STEM. The message from the
Bouman backlash is that if you are a woman who becomes the face of a
massive scientific breakthrough, sexist internet trolls will spend way too
much of their time harassing you and trying to disprove your credibility.

Women often face harassment
on various social media platforms — especially in professions like
journalism and politics, where they are in the public eye. How we move
forward is unclear, as such abusive incidents are apt to inspire many to
cease using social media platforms entirely,  à la Kelly Marie Tran.
Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech
and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis