Katie Bouman was one of roughly 200 people who worked together to create the first ever photograph of a black hole, unveiled by scientists last week.
But as a woman, an MIT grad and an accomplished computer scientist aged just 29, Bouman stood out to many as a role model for young women in the traditionally male-dominated STEM fields.
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Bouman, who will soon become an assistant professor at the California University of Technology (Caltech), was part of a team that wrote, tested and helped interpret the software code used on data obtained by a global network of eight telescopes.
Her contributions received widespread attention on Twitter, with the official account of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) tweeting an image of Bouman alongside an iconic 1969 photo of MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who helped write the software code for NASA’s Apollo program, which landed humans on the moon.
However, the widespread kudos given to Bouman on Twitter was deemed objectionable and excessive by people in some corners of the internet.
One person created a fake Twitter account purporting to be Bouman’s, with the tweets from that account held up by trolls as an excuse to criticize Bouman. The account was deleted after a media relations officer for CSAIL confirmed that it was fake.
Other platforms were also inundated with content targeting Bouman.
Search “Katie Bouman” on YouTube and one of the top results — as of Sunday afternoon — is a video titled “Woman does 6% of the Work but Gets 100% of the Credit: Black Hole Photo.”
Another video on the first page of YouTube search results is titled “Hi my name is Katie Bouman and I’m a fraud.”
Elsewhere, the sub-Reddit r/MGTOW — short for “Men Going Their Own Way,” an online community of men who urge against relationships with women — was awash with threads disparaging Bouman’s contributions.
One thread is titled “The Katie Bouman Phenomena OR How Feminism Invents Inventors,” while another is titled “History Being Falsely Written IN Plain Sight to Fit A Narrative.”
Another thread used a photo from a recent Caltech lecture of Bouman’s to suggest that she was somehow undermining the contributions of other scientists.
The photo shows Bouman speaking in front of a slideshow presentation titled “Imaging a Black Hole with the Event Horizon Telescope: Katie Bouman + EHT Collaboration.”
“Black hole image. Presented by; a woman, and some other people maybe,” was one Reddit user’s interpretation of Bouman’s choice of text.
“What a selfish, narcissistic c***,” wrote another.
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What the thread title and the comments neglected to mention, however, was the fact that Bouman began that lecture by summarily dismissing any notions of her being the star of the project.
“Before I start, I wanted to emphasize that this was a huge team effort,” she said, adding that any suggestions that she single-handedly led the project were “as far from the truth as possible.”
“I just want to make sure that everyone knows from the beginning that this is the effort of lots and lots of people for many years,” she reiterated.
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This isn’t new.
Back in 2016, Bouman gave a TED talk in which she highlighted the collaborative nature of the black hole imaging project, hailing it as a “melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers.”
More recently, some hours after the black hole announcement on Wednesday, Bouman published a Facebook post in which she noted that “no one algorithm or person” made the image.
“The image shown today is the combination of images produced by multiple methods,” Bouman wrote in a post that was accompanied by a photo of her and a few dozen other contributors to the project.
“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.”
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One of the many scientists involved in the project was Andrew Chael, whose contribution internet trolls insisted was unfairly overlooked.
Content posted to Reddit, Twitter and YouTube held up Chael as a supposed example of men not being given their due credit.
In response to the memes, Chael, who is gay, took to Twitter to praise Bouman and tell her critics to stop using his image to promote their “sexist vendetta” against her.
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Chael said the software used in the imaging process “would have never worked without her contributions and the work of many others.”
“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. I’m also thrilled she’s pointing out that this was a team effort including contributions from many junior scientists, including many women junior scientists.
“… So while I appreciate the congratulations on a result that I worked hard on for years, if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away and reconsider your priorities in life.”