Recently, the Event Horizon Telescope project shared with the world the first picture taken of a black hole in the M87 galaxy 50 million light-years away. The announcement got press coverage across the globe, and everyone rejoiced.
Then, suddenly, the media reported that all the glory belonged to a single woman, Dr. Katie Bouman at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In a sexist and condescending effort to uplift women by treating them as a brittle class of humans in dire need of white knighting, the media rendered Gravity female.
…her algorithm ultimately was never used.
How It Happened
The image of the black hole was made from stitching together segments from many different radio telescopes from around the world, and it was Bouman’s algorithm that made this possible. Or so the media reported.
Phys.org reported her as a “scientist superstar” who “designed algorithm for black hole image.” BBC called her “the woman behind the first black hole image.”
Later it turned out that, although she had unquestionably contributed significantly to the project, her algorithm ultimately was never used. And more importantly: The Event Horizon Telescope was a massive international team effort. She was part of this team and deserved recognition for her contribution, but why was she highlighted as the superstar who singlehandedly made it all happen?
Apparently, it is due to her gender. MIT’s Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) highlighted Bouman’s gender by comparing her to another famous woman in astronomy,
Left: MIT computer scientist Katie Bouman w/stacks of hard drives of black hole image data.
Right: MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton w/the code she wrote that helped put a man on the moon.
— MIT CSAIL (@MIT_CSAIL) April 10, 2019
Then, according to the media, the internet trolls descended onto the scene. Evil misogynist incels envious of a successful woman started picking at the story, questioning whether it could really be true that the Joan of Arc of astronomy could have slain the black hole beast all by herself.
It turns out that singling out Bouman was the astrophysicist community being slightly too eager to show off one of the few women in a field mostly populated by men. It was not to disparage men but an attempt to inspire more women to enter the field and possibly to gain a few social justice brownie points with the progressive overlords.
CSAIL was quick to promote Bouman on its Twitter account with a streak of tweets.
3 years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole.
Today, that image was released.
More info: https://t.co/WITAL1omGl
— MIT CSAIL (@MIT_CSAIL) April 10, 2019
Then, when the media had picked up the story of Bouman as the sole creator of the image, MIT CSAIL backpedaled with new tweets affirming that it had all been a collaborative effort.
We at @MIT_CSAIL are so proud of the role our alum Dr. Katie Bouman played in the development of the first-ever picture of a black hole. She's been psyched about all the #blackhole interest & just wanted to clarify a few things. (1/7)
— MIT CSAIL (@MIT_CSAIL) April 12, 2019
Bouman did something similar on her own Twitter account. It turns out that it wasn’t just a bunch of male internet trolls envious of a successful woman. CSAIL, Bouman, and others would not have come out to clarify her role unless they recognized that they had gone too far in their praise.
This story teaches us a valuable lesson about the unconscious premises that underlie modern progressive thought. Bouman was treated differently because of her gender. The underlying assumption is that women are oppressed by the evil patriarchy and need to be pampered and babied every step of the way in order to succeed.
The way they try to motivate women also reveals the progressives’ mindset: A woman cannot possibly be inspired to pursue a career unless she sees role models who happen to share her gender. Thus, the very same people who say that gender does not exist also think that people’s actions are entirely determined by their gender.
One can only hope that the awkward backfiring of singling out one person in a team effort as a superstar causes some self-reflection.
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