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Cultural Black Holes: What Public Reactions to Dr. Katie Bouman Tell Us About Prejudice in Science

Updated: May 13, 2019

By Cia Risbridger ·

Undoubtedly, by now, you’ve heard of Dr. Katie Bouman. The 29-year-old computer scientist from MIT has skyrocketed to fame recently - pun intended – as the public face behind the revolutionary photo imaging of a black hole released on 10. April 2019. The years of work by Bouman and 200 other researchers culminated in the release of an image of perhaps the most mysterious phenomena known to humankind, located within the Messier 87 galaxy, approximately 55 million light years from Earth. This unbelievable feat, however, has been blighted by the image’s dissemination on – you guessed it – social media. Another widely circulated image, alongside the black hole itself, has been one of Bouman, her hands pressed to her face as she grins in understandable elation.

Dr. Bouman with the image she helped to create

This photograph lived a brief, shining life as an inspirational and heart-warming example of the immense achievement of both Bouman and female scientists everywhere – that is, before the general public got hold of it. In just a few hours, comments began to pop up on social media around the photograph, questioning the significance of Bouman’s integral role in producing the image. Apparently for daring to be a leading female scientist, the internet screamed its doubts from the rooftops about her input, suggesting instead that Bouman had somehow claimed more than her fair share of the credit.

Pure Public Misogynist Outcry

What online publication The Verge called 'a sexist scavenger hunt' took place immediately. Bouman’s body of work was scrutinised by keyboard warriors eager to prove a woman’s irrelevance to the project’s success. Undermining Bouman’s success and redistributing the praise, internet users were quick to solely credit her colleague, the astrophysicist Andre Chael with the achievement. Indeed, misogynistic congregations on Reddit went so far as to produce a video entitled 'Woman does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit: Black Hole Photo,' NBC News reported. The video slid to the first result on YouTube for the search ‘Dr. Katie Bouman’ but was subsequently removed by the platform. Harassment towards Bouman herself rose to fever pitch, to the point where the New York Times reported she was forced to shut off her mobile phone.

Let those facts sink in for a minute. The result, after three years of algorithm development; of her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering; her master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; after her work as a member of the Haystack Observatory; after her master’s thesis, Estimating Material Properties of Fabric through the Observation of Motion, was awarded the Ernst Guillemin Award for best Master's Thesis – after years and years of battling the historically male-dominated fields of science and technology to become an outstanding lead researcher, pioneering revolutionary visualisation technology and after a world first: pure public misogynistic outcry. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was two hundred years ago, and that Marie Curie was just a twinkle in her parents’ eyes. But this is 2019. This is the state of affairs.

Swiftly, Chael himself released statements condemning what he termed the ‘awful and sexist attacks’ on his ‘colleague and friend’, and redressing rumours which he felt overstated his role in the black hole image. The particular video in question claimed that Chael did ‘most of the work’, arguing that he wrote 850,000 lines of code for the algorithm - a fact Chael has publicly refuted, commenting that the total software is comprised of only 68,000 lines of code. Published by a prominent men’s right’s group, the video went on to emphasise that it was Chael, who they termed a ‘straight white male’, who was responsible for the revolutionary image. In an interview with The Washington Post, Chael remarked on the backlash in the video: ‘It was clearly started by people who were upset that a woman had become the face of this story and decided, ‘I’m going to find someone who reflects my narrative instead.’

Not Fitting the Narrative

How can it be, then, in 2019, that women are still not considered an equal part in the accepted narrative of scientific progress? Bouman has been compared by many to Margaret Hamilton, another female computer scientist from MIT. Hamilton was the Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. Hamilton, a mother in her twenties, was able to help fulfil John. F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 promise to land on the moon before the end of the decade. And Hamilton, too, did not fit the accepted cultural profile of NASA computer programmers, and might have been lost to history without the recent revival of an image, which depicts her stood next to the pile of papers bearing the code responsible for the Apollo mission.

Hamilton, next to the code she hand-wrote for the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) source code (1969).

As in Hamilton’s case, the public problem with Bouman is that she fails to fit the narrative of those who still only accept progress as and when it happens at the hands of straight white men. This time, it is Bouman’s gender which has caused the outcry – but what of other female scientists who, in addition to being female, must battle prejudice against their race or sexuality? Indeed, the 2016 biography Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, and subsequent film adaptation of the same year, shed some long-awaited light on those female scientists. Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were doubly marginalised on account of their race as well as their sex. In addition, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space in 1983, hid her sexuality from the public until her death, fearing that a gay female astronaut would be – as a colleague put it – ‘beyond contemplation. Certainly, Ride remains the first openly gay astronaut today – almost four decades later.

The Sky is the Limit

What we are seeing at work in the public response to Dr. Katie Bouman is the acceptable face of bigotry which lingers in public sentiment today. Under the thinly-veiled pretence of objective examination, Bouman’s critics have revealed their deeply-ingrained reluctance to accept progress from those who fail to fit their profile of a straight, white man. Certainly, Chael’s correction of his sexuality must have caused great confusion in the minds of his ardent new-found fans.

This lingering homophobia, racism and misogyny is an ugly truth which clings to the darker corners of public consciousness. And, as we know, the only way to end such public perceptions is to continue to disprove them. To continue to raise the names and voices of these female pioneers in conversation, and educate those ignorant or unwilling to accept female contributions to science. Most importantly, to ensure that such archaic prejudice and violence remains in the past, we must ensure that a new generation of scientists and leaders is truly representative of the diversity inherent in progress; and it must include those hitherto marginalised by their race, sexuality, or their gender identity. This is the progress for which Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Sally Ride, and now Katie Bouman, have all fought: the truth that, for women, the sky is the limit.

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Nov 20, 2021

Its sad that nobody has commented here yet. I guess I'll start.

White men like me face challenges to our previously unquestioned authority that shake us to the bones. The walls started collapsing in on us with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and continued on the lines of butthurt feelings passed down from father to son, as each generation's 'old guard' sought to hold on to the political and cultural power they were born with. As such, the [formal, but not actual] end of slavery in the USA provided a ticking time-bomb that culminated in the "anti race-mixing / 'white slavery'" laws among other of the Jim Crow variety- we were still making those laws when the socialis…

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