Updated: Oct 17, 2020
In 2019, 29-year-old computer scientist Katie Bouman posted a photo on Facebook with the caption “Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.” The photo went viral and Bouman was hailed as a role model for females in science fields dominated by men. Reporter Morena Koren for The Atlantic wrote: “She was a symbol of female empowerment, a shatterer of STEM ceilings, a badass.” MIT, where Katie was a postdoctoral fellow, tweeted that Bouman “led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole.” MIT also posted a picture of Bouman with hard drives containing the data scientists used to depict the black hole alongside Margaret Hamilton, an MIT computer programmer who wrote the code for the Apollo.
This led internet trolls to investigate exactly how much Bouman had contributed to the project. They claimed she had only done 6% of the work. One vociferous man with the handle “Dumpster Fire” tweeted a picture of a member of her team, Andrew Chael, with the comment: “Actually I’m pretty sure THIS STRAIGHT WHITE MALE DID THIS WORK NOT THE WHORE!!!!” with the hashtag FakeNews. In the meantime, Bouman, who had years earlier clarified it was a group project, wrote: “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.”
Chael came to Bouman’s defense. He responded to the debunkers: “If you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away. Otherwise, stick around. I hope to start tweeting more here about black holes and other subjects I am passionate about—including space, being a gay astronomer, Ursula K. Le Guin, architecture and musicals.” Tina Yim tweeted to Chael, “Thank you for sticking up for her. I’ll point out that the fact that a man has to stick up for his female colleague to justify her accomplishments points to the engrained sexism in our society. Additionally, if a male made this accomplishment and made no mention of the team, fewer people would question this type of omission.”
“I’ll point out that the fact that a man has to stick up for his female colleague to justify her accomplishments points to the engrained sexism in our society.”
The Atlantic reporter Marina Koren notes that Bouman’s fans were only trying to “rescue her from the pantheon of unsung women in science—including Rosalind Franklin and Vera Rubin and Henrietta Leavitt, to name just a few—whose contributions went unrecognized in their moment and were honored only many years later, sometimes long after their male colleagues had received awards for the same work. Although Bouman’s discoveries inspired the method that the team eventually used to depict the black hole, her name was tarnished throughout social media.”