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Katie Bouman's work on the first black hole photo could signal a new era for women in STEM


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On the 10th of April this year, the world's first photograph of a black hole was published. The person behind it? Katie Bouman and her team of 200 other sceientists. 

Black Hole

                                                    Image Credit: EHT Collaboration from Wikipedia 

The image that was being shared throughout global media resembled a blurry eye of Sauron; it looked nothing like the other crystal-clear images of celestial objects being shared by the world’s top scientific institutions.

However, after reading about the tireless work behind-the-scenes by teams composed of hundreds, I realised that the image being circulated represented more than the black hole itself.

The future scientific possibilities that this image holds are as endless as our ever-expanding universe and it was born from countless historical processes which are worth acknowledging.

It is the behind-the-scenes work by unacknowledged groups in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) which have sent us to the stars. One of these groups are women, who have been crucial to our most famous space discoveries and expeditions. It is these same groups which are repeatedly unrecognised.

When Katie Bouman was credited for “the creation of an algorithm”, which led to the production of this revolutionary black-hole image, many hoped that this signalled more recognition of women in STEM. Finally, women were being presented as the face of global scientific advances; women are paving the way and being acknowledged for their work.

Crucially, several people have linked Bouman’s work to Magaret Hamilton’s coding in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hamilton’s codes were used for the Apollo missions and enabled men to first walk upon the moon.

Bouman has repeatedly drawn attention to the work of her 200-strong research team and has never claimed full responsibility for the image. Ironically for the trolls who attacked Bouman online, the attacks haven't propelled the gender focus of this story.

Demonstrating the under-acknowledgement of women in STEM, the Human Computer Project aims to recover the names of the hundreds of women who were recruited by NACA or NASA from 1943 to 1970. They are calling for help, asking people to contact them if “a mother, grandmother, sister, colleague, or friend… were one of the pioneers”.

Within popular culture, there are increasing efforts to recognise these important women. The book and film Hidden Figures was one such effort, detailing the journeys of a group of African American women who were recruited by the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. To meet growing demand for computational work required by aeronautical research, these women performed the behind-the-scenes work that sent Americans towards the stars and eventually onto the moon, beating the Russian astronauts in the infamous space race.

Often working tirelessly without any recognition for their work, women throughout history have been crucial within STEM projects. Without these women, and many other unacknowledged groups, our understanding of the universe would not be what it is today.

We owe so much to these people; they deserve respect as scientists and should not be subject to accusations which only serve to attack on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation and other prejudiced categorisations.

It is days like these that make me feel empowered. "This is just the beginning", said Bouman. We cannot wait to see what comes next.

Lead Image: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration on Wikipedia 

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