What is a black hole?
Shortly after Katie Bouman was credited with helping produce the first-ever image of a black hole, one of her male colleagues had to defend the 29-year-old computer scientist from “awful and sexist” attacks that said he, in fact, deserved the praise.
Andrew Chael, who was also a member of the team behind the historic discovery, didn’t mince words as he defended Bouman on Twitter.
“So apparently some (I hope very few) people online are using the fact that I am the primary developer of the eht-imaging software library ... to launch awful and sexist attacks on my colleague and friend Katie Bouman. Stop,” he wrote. “Our papers used three independent imaging software libraries. ... While I wrote much of the code for one of these pipelines, Katie was a huge contributor to the software; it would have never worked without her contributions.”
He continued: “With a few others, Katie also developed the imaging framework that rigorously tested all three codes and shaped the entire paper. [A]s a result, this is probably the most vetted image in the history of radio interferometry.
“I’m thrilled Katie is getting recognition for her work,” Chael wrote, “and that she’s inspiring people as an example of women’s leadership in STEM.”
The thrust of the criticism came from users on Reddit and Twitter, where they argued that Chael had in fact written “850,000 of the 900,000 lines of code that made the black hole picture possible.”
The image of the black hole was first released publicly on Wednesday, drawing international attention and awe. The massive celestial object is located “53 million light-years from Earth,” according to The Associated Press, and is “about 6 billion times the mass of our sun.”
One Reddit post with around 600 upvotes called Chael “the real hero,” while another with over 12,000 upvotes was titled “Katie Bouman should not be getting credit for the picture of the black hole.”
Some pointed to data from the computer coding service GitHub as proof that Chael had done at least “90 percent” of the work.
But Chael, the “primary author of one piece of software that worked on imaging the black hole,” was having none of it and denied writing that many lines of code, according to The Washington Post.
The attacks were “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, according to The Washington Post. “Katie was a huge part of our collaboration at every step.”
While many media outlets heralded Bouman as the woman “behind” the black hole image or the person responsible “for making it happen,” she never took sole credit for the momentous scientific leap.
“No one of us could’ve done it alone,” Bouman in an interview with CNN. “It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds.”
Bouman played an important role by helping “form the algorithm that made the visualization (of the black hole) a reality,” as reported by CBS News.
Her’s was one of “several” algorithms that helped produce the image of an all-consuming black hole.
“We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image,” Bouman said, according to CNN.
The New York Times wrote that Bouman “accidentally became the face of the black hole project” because “many nonscientists on social media overstated her role in what was a group effort by hundreds of people, creating an exaggerated impression as the photo was shared and reshared.”
After all, it took about 200 researchers — around 40 of them women — to notch another scientific milestone, The New York Times reported.
Sara Issaoun, a graduate student who was a part of the research, said “the diversity and group effort and the breadth of our collaboration, I think, is worth celebration,” according to The New York Times.
“There are women involved in every single step of this amazing project,” the 24-year-old told the newspaper. “As a woman in STEM myself, it’s good to have role models out there who young girls and young boys can look up to.”
Chael, who is openly gay, told The Washington Post that it was “ironic” that people were pitting one member of a disenfranchised community against another.
He ended his Twitter thread by making one thing clear: He wasn’t interested in compliments that only served to undermine Bouman’s contributions.
“So while I appreciate the congratulations on a result that I worked hard on for years,” he wrote, “if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away and reconsider your priorities in life.”