This Is The Truth About "The Woman Behind The Black Hole Image"

MIT grad student Katie Bouman. MIT CSAIL

This week, Earthlings were introduced to one of the most important images ever taken by humanity: the first image of a black hole event horizon.

While this softly glowing orange donut was undoubtedly the star of the show, the breakthrough was also celebrated as a momentous day for women in science. Dr Katherine Bouman, a 29-year-old post-doctoral fellow at MIT, played a crucial role in the creation of the image and achieved widespread recognition across the media for her contribution.

Back in April 2017, a network of radio telescopes dotted around the globe started gazing into the skies, their "eyes" focussed towards a black hole some 54 million light-years away at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. Over the next two years, a team of 200 scientists worked tirelessly to extract meaning from this data and piece it all together, eventually resulting in the momentous image released this week. Along with her team, Dr Bouman’s expertise in computer science was used to write part of the algorithm that stitched together the data to create the final product.  

Nevertheless, not everyone was happy with the praise heaped on Bouman and the Internet-dwelling trolls quickly descended. They argued that Andrew Chael, another member of the Event Horizon Telescope team, was actually the brains behind the image and wrote most of the code, but that the media and “SJWs” were using Dr Bouman to push their “left-wing narrative” and ”feminist agenda”.

“It only went viral because the news is desperate to pat a woman on the head for doing anything but make a baby,” one troll wrote on Twitter. Another said he was going through the code to check “if she actually did the work.”

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It should go without saying, this is ridiculous. But it’s also wrong for a number of reasons.

“No one algorithm or person made this image,” Bouman points out in a Facebook post.

"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.”

In a lengthy Twitter thread, Chael defended Bouman, a colleague and friend, hailing the recognition for her work and pointing out he didn’t write the "850,000 lines of code" that people were trying to attribute to him.

“I'm thrilled Katie is getting recognition for her work and that she's inspiring people as an example of women's leadership in STEM,” he wrote.

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Raising the profile of women in science is vital. There are some, like controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson who will (and have) argue, “you shouldn’t confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome.” However, simply saying boys and girls naturally prefer different subjects doesn’t account for the huge number of intertwined structural and social factors that contribute to these statistics.

While 1 in 4 men in the US with STEM degrees go on to undertake STEM careers, this statistic is just 1 in 7 women. As women in STEM often point out, the problem is not attracting women and girls into STEM subjects, but keeping them is another matter entirely, thanks to attitudes to women in the male-dominated workplace, which includes promoting women into more visible positions. 

Most importantly, science, like anything, is richer for diversity. The under-representation of women in science equates to a huge loss of critical talent, skill, ideas, and crucially, perspective.

It’s also vital that science and scientific research reflects the world it is attempting to understand. Here’s just one example: Women are 17 percent more likely than men to die in a car crash, and 71 percent more likely to be moderately injured, even when wearing seat belts. Why? Seatbelts aren’t designed with women in mind. All the research carried out was then tested on men, who generally have bigger frames and are taller.

In a similar vein, a report published in the journal Elsevier showed that research teams with more diversity and wider representation of social groups tended to generate more original ideas primarily because of the variety of perspectives being brought into an argument.

It's simple. “Diversity adds to the collective intelligence of a research group, and not only enhances creativity, but also provides new contexts for understanding the societal relevance of the research itself,” the report says.

This is why we need to get past the "who wrote what code" and "it wasn't just one person" arguments and admit highlighting the successes of women in STEM is so important for inspiring and recruiting the Dr Boumans of tomorrow. Visibility and representation matter.

And, frankly, the world could do with as many Dr Boumans as we can get. 

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