Katie Bouman Is a STEM Hero — But Not for the Reason We Thought
A few hours after the world (by way of the internet) laid eyes on the very first photographic image of a black hole, the name “Katie Bouman” began trending. According to a tweet from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, the 29-year-old MIT postdoctoral student had “led the creation of a new algorithm” that made the black hole image possible. After the pic went public on Wednesday, it wasn’t long before another photo began making the rounds: one of the fresh-faced scientist posed in front of a computer screen that displayed the groundbreaking image she’d helped create, with her hands clasped over her mouth in proud disbelief.
In an instant, Bouman became a stand-in for generations of women scientists whose contributions to technological breakthroughs were buried under the names of their male colleagues. Celebrities tweeted in appreciation. Others listed the names of female scientists that time, and sexism, had allowed us to forget. The moment felt triumphant: a chance for women in STEM to get their long-deserved moment in the spotlight. But there was also some pushback against this simple, feel-good version of events — namely, from Katie Bouman herself.
“I’m so excited that we finally get to share what we have been working on for the past year!” she wrote on Facebook. “The image shown today is the combination of images produced by multiple methods. 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. It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.”
In fact, Bouman was one of more than 200 scientists from 60 different research institutions, in 18 countries across six continents, to contribute to the project. Approximately 40 women (including Bouman) were involved.
While many media outlets (including us) mistakenly reported that Bouman had led the creation of the algorithm used to visualize the previously unphotographable image, a Harvard astronomer named Shep Doeleman was actually in charge of the project.
Bouman’s contributions were important to this process, and while it’s true that she led a team in developing an algorithm intended to create an image of a black hole, the New York Times reported Thursday that Bouman’s algorithm was not the one ultimately used to make the photo we saw on Wednesday. (On Friday afternoon, the MIT CSAIL Twitter account issued a series of posts to clear up earlier confusion.)
“There are women involved in every single step of this amazing project,” said Sara Issaoun, a 24-year-old graduate student at Radboud University in the Netherlands, in an interview with the Times. Issaoun was one of the researchers involved.
So, it appears that many of us got the details of this story a bit wrong, and the reasons why are pretty straightforward. Obviously, it’s easy to jump to less-than-accurate conclusions from information that’s shared on social media, especially in celebration of a young woman for a breakthrough in STEM, a field in which women are so notoriously underrepresented.
The Bouman story was also the product of our tendency to credit individual thought-leaders or “pioneers” for making change happen. We like being able to point to a single person who made a difference in the world, because it inspires us to try to do the same. But the truth is that no one person alone is responsible for making big things happen.
Collaboration is a superpower. As Katie Bouman wants us to remember, it’s when we work together that the impossible comes within reach — or, in the case of black holes, that the unphotographable becomes photographed. The Bouman story is one of teamwork and triumph, and by upholding that spirit, more of us will be able to shine. It may not be the story we wanted, but it’s the one with the most to offer.
(Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)