Just after the Event Horizon Telescope project announced last week that its astronomers had managed to capture the first-ever image of a black hole, MIT tweeted this image.
Katie Bouman is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who helped develop the code to find the black hole needle in the haystack of data collected from the effort. This photo shows the first time she saw the results of that work, with the black hole image on her computer screen.
This is a photo of a pure “eureka!” moment. It’s delightful, an inspiration. It quickly went viral, and news outlets including the New York Times began hailing Bouman as the “face of the black hole project.”
But then all the attention became a catalyst for a sexist backlash on social media and YouTube. It set off “what can only be described as a sexist scavenger hunt,” as The Verge described it, in which an apparently small group of vociferous men questioned Bouman’s role in the project. “People began going over her work to see how much she’d really contributed to the project that skyrocketed her to unasked-for fame.”
There’s a lot of nonsense tied up in this episode — and we wouldn’t even be talking about it if platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube didn’t allow trollish thinking to fester and spread virally.
But there are a few key takeaways. One is that while the “lone genius” narrative can be tantalizing, it’s almost never true, especially in science. Another is that women often don’t feel welcome in scientific fields — and the reaction to Bouman’s picture reveals hostility many women scientists face all the time. Lastly, to combat this hostility, we need to see more images of women thriving in science.
Bouman was involuntarily cast in the trope of the “lone genius” — something that’s usually applied to men
In telling stories about science, there’s a bias in our culture to focus on the lone genius. It’s how the history of science is often told: The world exists one way, and then people such as Issac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and the like come along and shake up our fundamental understanding of things. Sure, sometimes the “lone genius” trope is warranted. But especially in present times, science is hardly ever a solitary endeavor.
The biggest recent discoveries in physics — of the Higgs boson, of gravitational waves, of this black hole image — still involve a huge number of people working over the span of decades.
Once the MIT image of Bouman started to go viral, she was suddenly the lone genius behind the Event Horizon Telescope’s groundbreaking discovery. Here’s how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it:
Congratulations to Dr. Katie Bouman, who developed the algorithm which captured the first ever image of a black hole! You are an inspiration to all Americans and especially to young women and girls with STEAM dreams! https://t.co/OPV0X55lcc— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) April 11, 2019
And there were many, many more tweets riffing on the assumption that Bouman was the driving force behind the discovery.
Bouman and her colleagues clarified, in no uncertain terms, that the black hole image was a team effort. In all, more than 200 scientists worked on it — from all over the world. Heck, even the shipping manager tasked with making sure hard drives made it to the scientists safely from observatories all around the world, including Antarctica, played a crucial role.
“No one algorithm or person made this image,” Bouman wrote on Facebook. “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.”
In fact, collaboration was crucial to the Event Horizon Telescope’s study design. There were several teams tasked with generating algorithms independently of one another. The goal was to see if all the results were all in agreement with one another, so that the Event Horizon team could feel confident publishing them.
Right-wing trolls feel threatened by women in power
The “lone genius” trope is usually unfairly bestowed upon men. And not just by the media but by prestigious scientific institutions. Think of the 2017 Nobel Prize for physics: It was given to Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Barry Barish for the first detection of gravitational waves. Just three men were awarded the prize, despite the fact that thousands of scientists — men and women — worked on the discovery.
Throughout history, women’s roles in major scientific discoveries have been unfairly downplayed or overlooked. Consider Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Or the story of Katherine Johnson, the black NASA mathematician whose story became the basis for Hidden Figures, whose work in calculating key orbital moves in the early days of manned spaceflight went uncelebrated for decades.
The possibility that Bouman might have been a major player in the black hole discovery similarly seemed to have deeply upset right-wing trolls, perhaps because they feel their status is threatened by women like her.
“It’s about what they perceive as a growing cultural/ideological battle that seeks to unjustly advance the station of women and minorities at their expense,” Nour Kteily, a social scientist who has studied the right-wing mindset, writes in an email. The elevation of women possibly makes them feel less secure in their status as men in society. (Just as the rising number of minorities in this country may make white people feel threatened and cause them to support anti-immigration policies.)
“From their perspective, the elevation of Bouman represents little more than an example of an undeserving member of a group ... given advantages she hasn’t earned,” Kteily says.
We need more images of women scientists involved with big scientific collaborations
Bouman’s picture may have been overhyped — again, she was just one of many brilliant people working in collaboration — but it’s still important. We see so few images of triumphant women in science.
“When you think about what a scientist means, you probably think of an Einstein figure — a man in a lab or at a chalkboard with fuzzy, unkempt hair,” my colleague Julia Belluz once wrote. “When you think of a scientist’s voice, you might conjure Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan.”
That’s because we don’t see images of women scientists like the one above. “The association is reinforced in primary school science textbooks, where images of men outnumber images of women by three to one,” Belluz wrote. It can even be hard to find photos of women scientists on Wikipedia — particularly those from underrepresented demographic groups.
When Canadian physicist Donna Strickland won the 2018 Nobel Prize, there wasn’t even a Wikipedia article published about her. A previous entry on her had been removed because she was deemed not significant enough.
There are so many ways women and minority scientists have been erased from history or not written into it. It’s often hard to find photographs of historic women scientists (particularly nonwhite women scientists), and many more Wikipedia pages of women scientists still need to be written.
Images of women in science matter because far too many women aren’t encouraged, or don’t feel welcome, to pursue careers in science. To this day, many women feel hostility when climbing the career ladder in science.
Women often feel unwelcome in science
Historically, science and engineering has been a white men’s club, and it shows in the workforce to this day.
In January, the Pew Research Center published a report that found 50 percent of women working in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) have experienced gender discrimination on the job, and 36 percent say sexual harassment is a problem in their workplace.
Women represent only 30 percent of the STEM workforce and see a significant pay gap compared with men’s salaries. Women are often underrepresented at the top levels of academic hierarchies. And problems with discrimination appear to be worse when women work in male-dominated offices, according to Pew.
Flagrant sexism still exists in science. Earlier this year, a scientist from CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) made headlines when he declared at a scientific conference that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation.” He was rebuked and CERN suspended him, but the fact that he had the confidence to make such an assertion speaks volumes about the sexism in science lingering beneath the surfaces.
And as hard as it can be for women, it’s even harder for women of color.
A 2015 survey found 40 percent of women of color working in astronomy “reported that they had felt unsafe in their current career position due to gender” in a survey. Twenty-seven percent of white women reported the same. “This represents a significant failure in the astronomical community to create safe working conditions for all scientists,” the study authors wrote. “Significant proportions of women compared to men ... reported that they had ever skipped a class, meeting, fieldwork, or other professional event because they did not feel safe.”
When you look at the right-wing reaction to Bouman’s story — as exaggerated as some tweets about her might have been — it’s no wonder why some feel this hostility. There are still too many people who don’t want to see a woman in science succeed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Katie Bouman’s academic affiliation. She is a postdoc at Harvard and is soon to start as an assistant professor at Caltech.