As the world stared in wonder this week at the first image of a black hole, a new star was born here on Earth: Katherine Bouman, 29, a postdoctoral researcher who developed an algorithm that was key to capturing the stunning visual.
In ugly corners of the Internet, however, this sudden fame for a young woman in a male-dominated field couldn’t stand. A corrective was quickly found in Andrew Chael, another member of the Event Horizon Telescope team, who is white and male.
On Reddit and Twitter, memes quickly went viral contrasting Bouman with Chael, who – per the viral images – was actually responsible for “850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code that were written in the historic black-hole image algorithm!” The implication was clear: Bouman, pushed by an agenda-driven news media, was getting all the attention, but Chael had done all the real work.
That’s completely wrong, Chael said Thursday night in a viral Twitter thread of his own. Not only are the assertions in the meme flat-out incorrect, but Chael, as an openly gay man, is also part of an underrepresented demographic in his field.
“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,” he tweeted.
It’s not clear exactly when or where the backlash against Bouman started. Chael caught wind of it from friends who alerted him to a Reddit post. One post on the r/pics subreddit attracted hundreds of comments and thousands of “upvotes” before it was taken down, with many criticizing Bouman at his expense, said Chael, 28, a graduate student in Harvard University’s physics department. As one commenter complained, “Katie has been plastered everywhere as being responsible for the code but if this dude did pretty much all the work, seems kind of crappy he doesn’t get recognized.”
“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,’ ” Chael said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Identical memes quickly spread across Twitter, where one response was: “Andrew Chael did 90% of the work. Where’s his credit?”
Those assertions are wrong, Chael said. He certainly didn’t write “850,000 lines of code,” a false number likely pulled from GitHub, a Web-based coding service. And while he was the primary author of one piece of software that worked on imaging the black hole, the team used multiple different approaches to avoid bias. His work was important, he said, but Bouman’s was also vital as she helped stitch together all the teams.
“Katie was a huge part of our collaboration at every step,” Chael said.
In truth, singling out any one scientist in a massive, cross-disciplinary group effort like the Event Horizon Telescope’s project is bound to create misapprehensions. Many who shared an equally viral image of Bouman clutching her hands in joy at the sight of the black hole came away wrongly thinking she was the sole person responsible for the discovery, an idea the postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has tried to correct.
“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.”
But those who sought to diminish Bouman’s work – especially while boosting Chael in her place – were making an absurd argument, the astrophysicist said. The New Mexico native is on the Outlist of LGBTQ scientists in the astronomy and astrophysics fields, and advises gay undergraduates at Harvard.
“Yes, that was ironic that they chose me,” he said.
Despite speaking out against the backlash, Chael said he’s been heartened to see Bouman’s work held up as an inspiration. He hopes it leads to more women in astrophysics and astronomy departments.
“I don’t want to downplay the fact that it’s a very male-dominated community, especially radio astronomy,” Chael said. “There are [fewer] women there than even in other fields of astronomy, which we have to work hard to change.”
He added, “Katie and several other women scientists on our team are just incredible leaders in this effort, and I’m hoping this can be a chance for all of us to talk about doing better.”
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Story by Tim Elfrink.