Where Credit is Due

This week, we got the first images of an actual black hole. I’m sure you saw it on the news, though maybe not, what with all the images of Julian Assange being dragged from his Ecuadorean Embassy squat in London. We’re not really living in an age where science gets top billing on any newscast. But the great thing about scientists is that most of them aren’t in it for the fame. They keep working out the puzzles of the universe even when the rest of us are waiting for a certain highly redacted report to drop or when we’re distracted by old men shaking their fists and babbling like fools at the U.S. southern border.

The images of the black hole are thrilling, but the images of the scientists when they first see the black hole are even more thrilling. The scientists cheer. They put their hands to their mouths in that gesture that signals complete awe. Most of us never experience that kind of euphoria at the office. We soon learned that Dr. Katie Bouman, 29, was instrumental in creating the algorithm that captured the image that led to that euphoria. And no one was more euphoric than Bouman.

Dr. Katie Bouman image
Dr. Katie Bouman

Not only was it a major scientific breakthrough, it was a major scientific breakthrough made possible in large part by the work of a young female scientist. This matters, because science remains a male-dominated field. We need more women in science and one of the best ways to encourage girls to study science is to show lots of images of women like Bouman. Representation matters. If you never see a person who looks like you doing something you want to do, you may believe your desires aren’t realistic. You may choose to do something safer or easier or less exciting. That’s a shame.

Almost as soon as some people began cheering Bouman’s contributions to this major breakthrough, other people began disputing the narrative. These people said, sure, Bouman wrote a few lines of code, but the real credit belongs to a man named Andrew Chael. He, not she, should be the hero of this story. Both Bouman and Chael point out that neither of them deserves all the credit, that this project was truly a team effort.

“No one algorithm or person made this image. It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe.”

Dr. Katie Bouman

“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.”

Andrew Chael on Twitter

Kudos to both Bouman and Chael for pushing back, but shame on those people who dispute any narrative where a woman leads the way in traditionally male-dominated fields. This sort of thing happens all the time in less dramatic ways in offices across America and throughout the world. Women do the work, but rarely get the credit. Every woman I know can cite at least a dozen times when one of her ideas was co-opted by some man. This is not a dig at men, in particular, but at the way we assume that any big accomplishment ought to be attributed to the nearest white male. And the way that some men, unlike Chael, refuse to say: No, I won’t take sole credit for something that was clearly a group effort and also it was her idea. (Men, if you’ve never uttered such a sentence, try it.)

In this case, as in most cases, the real credit goes to the team of scientists. No single individual is responsible for such a massive discovery. But Bouman’s contributions are real and indisputable. Still, the naysayers persist. They believe Bouman is only getting credit because she is a woman. They believe it’s a false narrative driven by shrill feminists.

In fact, history is full of examples of men taking all the credit for some breakthrough or discovery, while the women who do much of the work get no credit at all. If they’re lucky, they might get a little footnote of credit. The women, though, don’t share in the prizes or the money that comes with those prizes. The prizes matter. The money matters. The recognition matters.

Katie Bouman matters.

Giving credit to Katie Bouman and women like her does not diminish the contributions of Andrew Chael or any other man. Chael knows this. Actually, all decent men know this. It’s only the insecure and, frankly, pathetic men who do not.

So congrats Katie and Andrew and everyone else who brought the stunning images from another galaxy to our television and computer screens. You’re amazing. I hope you inspire lots of girls to take to their microscopes and telescopes and graph paper and computers in search of the next big breakthrough. I look forward to a future where scientific fields are so diverse that an announcement about a woman’s discovery elicits nothing but excitement about the discovery itself. I look forward to the day when all the petty men are sucked up into the black hole of irrelevance. That day is coming.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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