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bp6: feminist critique of the black hole news

In the spirit of the first ever image of the black hole, I will look at the news event of the first ever image of the Black Hole, more specifically this article (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/11/science/katie-bouman-black-hole.html).

To provide a quick overview, the first-ever image of a black hole was recently unveiled on April 10, 2019. The idea was that in order to take an image of an object millions of light years away, they needed an earth-size telescope which is impossible, so they took eight existing telescopes all over the world to work all at once given the right conditions to take that image. However, that does not immediately provide us with an image so Dr. Katie Bouman along with her team of 200 researchers developed an algorithm that filled in all the missing information. The goal of the imaging was to find an image that not only reconstructs and matches the data, but also one that is most likely. This process was computationally intensive given the size of their data and their team was able to successfully construct an image. Because of an image surfacing the internet, Dr. Katie Bouman quickly became the face of the Black Hole project.

The first thing that came to mind reading this article was that if the face of the project was a man, would he have faced the same criticisms? Each and every day there are researchers working in labs with their teams, and throughout history men have been the face of STEM fields. Having Dr. Katie Bouman as the face of this project has been celebrated by women all over because she becomes one of the few women recognized in STEM. Many successful women in STEM are recognized by their partners such as Melinda Gates or even Mackenzie Bezos. These women have been along the struggles and the successes of their partners but are rarely recognized or celebrated, and that has never been an issue with the media before. Nobody had problems with men being the face of the news may it be something small or big, but all of a sudden because a woman became the face of this project she has to justify herself?

There are several people responding that Katie should not be the face of the project since she barely contributed code to this project. This was in reference to this GitHub page (https://github.com/achael/eht-imaging/graphs/contributors) where it shows the members of the project as well as how much they committed (add and save changes to the project) and how many lines of code she submitted. The immediate response of the public was that since achael had committed over 850k lines of code as opposed to klbouman’s 2410 line of code. While this is true, it is not necessarily representative of the entire picture of this project. As mentioned in the article there were more than 200 researchers, with around 40 women, who are not even in this GitHub page. To receive this backlash for being a woman is clearly because of the patriarchy. It is often unbelievable how men operate under the belief that women are still incapable of being part of the STEM field, and finding petty reasons such as one page is not truly reflective of the contribution of everyone in the team, especially the women in the team.

While there are articles about the blackhole that do not even mention Katie Bouman’s name such as from the ScienceNews (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/black-hole-first-picture-event-horizon-telescope) – which mostly described the process and result of the project, the New York Times article continues to quote women involved in the project including Sara Issaoun and Dr. Ozel. Emphasizing the importance and contribution of women in this project was very important, especially since these are women who end up become role models for young women all over the world. This article acknowledges the rest of the researchers and Dr. Shep Doeleman, but decides to highlight and focus the contribution of women which is important. (This is to note that in a previous NYTimes article about the Black Hole, they never mention Dr. Bouman.)

As the face of the black hole project and with all these criticisms, Dr. Bouman still remains humble and acknowledges the importance of her team in this project. In a Facebook post, she said: “No one algorithm or person made this image. It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe.”

I hope that there will come a day where women do not have to justify their success and just be celebrated.

2 thoughts on “bp6: feminist critique of the black hole news

  1. Dhipinder Walia

    Thanks Keri. You use a feminist critique to identify some of the problems in the backlash: If Dr. Bouman was a man would we care that she’s the head of a team getting majority of the credit? If Dr. Bouman was a man would there be a different kind of accolade etc. What would also be cool is to synthesize all of the news coverage of Dr. Bouman’s discovery and see if there’s subtle dismissals through the wording of headlines, type of pictures used, etc.

    DW

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