Black hole photo drama sucks the excitement out of science

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This false-color image released Wednesday, April 10, 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope shows a black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. Scientists revealed the first image ever made of the mysterious stellar phenomenon after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the Earth. It is located about 53 million light years away. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories via AP)

As most people probably know, this past week the world experienced a first in the history of science when we were able to see a picture of a black hole for the first time. This image, which looks somewhat like a blurry red doughnut for those who haven’t seen it, is significant as it is the first ever real-life image of a black hole, rather than an artist’s rendition. However, what most people don’t know, is that along with this huge scientific milestone came a storm of social media support and outrage for one of the scientists involved with obtaining this historic image.  

Katie Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, was the subject of a photo tweeted out in reaction to the image of the black hole being released. The photo depicted Bouman, who was a member of the team that attempted (and succeeded) to photograph the black hole, with the deconstructed photo in the background and an excited look on her face. And rightfully so. Here is a scientist, who has probably worked extremely hard for her entire life to make discoveries and share knowledge, doing what she set out to do. Many people probably thought it was impossible to photograph a black hole and here is a scientist showing us something that has never been seen before. We should all be applauding this photo. 

Of course, some people find it hard to give credit where credit is due. This photo soon went viral and along with the spreading of the news came a huge amount of controversy and backlash from groups of internet trolls questioning Bouman’s role in the project. While some people found this image to be a recognition of females in a primarily male-driven STEM field and hailed Bouman as a feminist role model, others decided to take the opposite route, questioning Bouman’s actual role in the project.  

Unfortunately for these trolls, what they found when digging into Bouman’s resume and educational background, was she was just as qualified and important as people thought. However, while she was undeniably qualified, others began to find flaws in other places. As Bouman’s face was thrust into the spotlight following the release of these images, some critiqued the fact that she was not the only person working on the project, and pointed out that other members of the team were not receiving credit they too deserved. Bouman was quick to point out that this accomplishment could not have come about without the hard work and success of the larger team, but the damage was done. While one group was hailing Bouman as the leader of a new movement of women in STEM, others were tarnishing Bouman’s reputation. 

In all of the chaos that followed this photo, it seems almost difficult to remember that this drama all unfolded due to a huge scientific advancement. The photo of a black hole, something that scientists had theorized about but never actually seen, is a major advancement in our scientific history. Just as going into space or walking on the moon, this milestone will be remembered and written about in future scientific journals and student textbooks. Do we really want to remember this event by the controversy that emerged from social media?  

Social media has been a great tool in sharing this scientific discovery and allowing others to view the first image of a black hole. However, it is also taking away from the significance of this discovery. By focusing all of our attention on one woman and deciding to judge her rather than allowing ourselves to be amazed by the vastness of our universe, we lose what the real accomplishment is. Bouman was important in obtaining this photo. Other scientists were also important in obtaining this photo. What matters most is that the product we have now, regardless of any criticism or drama that followed, furthers humanity’s knowledge and understanding of our universe.  


Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor  for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.

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