How Katie Bouman Accidentally Became the Face of the Black Hole Project

As the first-ever image of a black gap was unveiled this week, one other picture started making its means round the web: a photograph of a younger scientist, clasping her fingers over her face and reacting with glee to a picture of an orange ring of gentle, circling a deep, darkish abyss.

It was a photograph too good to not share. The scientist, Katie Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow who contributed to the undertaking, turned an immediate hero for girls and ladies in STEM, a welcome image in a world hungry for illustration.

Public figures from Washington to Hollywood discovered her title. And some advocates, acquainted with how historical past can write over the contributions of girls, rapidly moved to ensure she obtained the recognition she deserved. In their eagerness to have a good time her, nonetheless, many nonscientists on social media overstated her function in what was a bunch effort by a whole lot of individuals, creating an exaggerated impression as the picture was shared and reshared.

But Ms. Issaoun warned against a “lone-wolf success” narrative. “The diversity and group effort and the breadth of our collaboration, I think, is worth celebration,” she said.

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To capture the image of a black hole — a mysterious phenomenon long thought to be unseeable — the scientists used eight radio observatories across the globe to observe the galaxy on and off for 10 days in April 2017. Then they embarked on the painstaking effort to process enormous amounts of data and map it into an image.

Dr. Bouman, who will soon become an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, indeed played a significant role in the imaging process, which involved researchers breaking up into teams to map the data and compare and test the images they created.

While she led the development of an algorithm to take a picture of a black hole, an effort that was the subject of a TED Talk she gave in 2016, her colleagues said that technique was not ultimately used to create this particular image.

After the burst of publicity spread her smiling face across Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and news sites around the globe, Dr. Bouman did not initially respond to requests for comment Thursday. In a Facebook post, she said: “No one algorithm or person made this image. It required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe.”

“It has been truly an honor,” she added, “and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.”

In a text message late Thursday night, Dr. Bouman said that she had to turn her phone off because she was getting so many messages. “I’m so glad that everyone is as excited as we are and people are finding our story inspirational,’’ she wrote. “However, the spotlight should be on the team and no individual person. Focusing on one person like this helps no one, including me.”

Other women on the project also celebrated this week as years of hard work were finally made public.

“Honestly, it was a dream come true,” Sandra Bustamante, a telescope instrumentalist who worked on the project, said in an interview this week.

Feryal Ozel, an astronomy and astrophysics professor at the University of Arizona who was on the science council for the project, first published a paper on black hole imaging in 2000. She called the unveiling “a sweet moment that’s been a long time in the making.”

In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Ozel said that it was exciting to see people interested in the role of women in science, but she highlighted the contributions of other women and men. That included one of her male graduate students, who took multiple trips to the South Pole, where one of the telescopes was located.

“I think giving credit to any single individual — whether this is a woman or man, young or old — harms the collaboration,” she said.

Penn Sheppard, who works with Girls Inc., an organization that empowers young women and offers after-school programming to support girls learning in science, technology, engineering and math, said that Dr. Bouman’s story resonated in an industry in which women are underrepresented — and in a world in which their scientific contributions have historically gone unacknowledged.

“It was an opportunity to see an accomplished woman play a significant role, and being acknowledged in that role,” she said. “That’s significant because girls and young boys are starting to see that women are scientists — not just you can be, but you are.”

Ms. Issaoun said she also wanted to celebrate the success of a diverse collaboration of scientists, but she said she understood why the photo of Dr. Bouman went viral.

“We love this photo too, because she looks so happy,” said Ms. Issaoun, who said she got shivers when she saw the image of a black hole. “I think her expression really captures how we all felt when we first saw it.”

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