The Dark Saga of Katie Bouman

How a young scientist got sucked into the black hole of the internet

A laptop displays the famous black-hole photo.
D3sign / Getty / EHT / National Science Foundation via Reuters / The Atlantic

Two photos—one long anticipated, the other a surprise—became instantly famous in astronomy last week. First, there was the first-ever look at a black hole, a shadowy void encircled in a fiery ring of cosmic matter. Then, in the celebration that followed, another image emerged: a young computer scientist, hands over her mouth and eyes flashing with giddiness, as the image of the most mysterious object in the universe rendered on the computer screen in front of her.

This researcher, Katie Bouman, was a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and a member of the team running Event Horizon Telescope, the effort to capture visual evidence of a black hole for the first time. After astronomers released that image last week, Bouman’s spread across the internet just as rapidly, on social media and in news stories. Her face, slightly blurry but beaming, was everywhere.

At first, the message was simple—Bouman stood out as a role model for young women and girls working in or aspiring to jobs in male-dominated science fields. A round of stories celebrated Bouman’s work on the algorithms that forged a mesmerizing photograph from a vat of telescope data. She was a symbol of female empowerment, a shatterer of STEM ceilings, a badass.

But within hours, another strain of interpretation started metastasizing. Memes and videos across Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms called Bouman a fraud and “debunked” her contributions to the discovery.

In the midst of all that, something strange started happening: Dozens of accounts (some now deleted) appeared on Instagram and Twitter bearing Bouman’s name and picture. None of them, her colleagues said, was real.

And Bouman didn’t ask for any of it.

In many ways, this is an old story: A successful woman becomes a target of harassment online because she’s a successful woman. But the reaction to Bouman seems specific to this particular cultural moment, in which divergent views of gender, media, and science, usually flowing in their own little streams, smash together to form a massive riptide. This one image tapped into a multitude of questions about the role of women in science, the myth of the lone genius, and the pressure scientists have to promote themselves and their work on social media.

In moments like these, strangers on the internet can end up shaping the current as they feverishly share and retweet and upvote, eager for the chance to revere a person or expose them. The reality of the person at the center—the Katie Bouman that exists outside these few pictures—can get lost. And when the rush subsides, it leaves behind a tangled web of truths, falsehoods, and exaggerations. Reality is split into two. In one, Bouman is a hero; in the other, she’s a villain.

This onslaught started with a tweet from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, intended to promote, as these institutions love to do, one of their own. Bouman, the post said, “led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole.” (Bouman did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Tens of thousands of users amplified the message. The excitement fed into a hunger to celebrate women in science, heightened by a national movement to listen, finally, to women long unheard. At a press conference in Washington, D.C., where the image was unveiled by Event Horizon Telescope team members, only one of the four scientists was a woman; black-hole enthusiasts were ready to hear from more.

Bouman’s new fans wanted to rescue the young computer scientist from the pantheon of unsung women in science—including Rosalind Franklin and Vera Rubin and Henrietta Leavitt, to name just a few—whose contributions went unrecognized in their moment and were honored only many years later, sometimes long after their male colleagues had received awards for the same work. In another viral tweet, the MIT account juxtaposed a picture of Bouman with stacks of the hard drives bearing the data that spotted the black hole with one of Margaret Hamilton, the MIT computer scientist who helped write the software for the Apollo program.

“Take your rightful seat in history, Dr. Bouman!” Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cheered to her nearly 4 million Twitter followers. Like the lawmaker, Bouman is an appealing embodiment of a rising generation—young, fresh-faced, and female. As a symbol of a new wave of women in science, she was perfectly cast.

Science is still filled with women whose work has received less recognition than that of their male peers. The real-time recognition of Bouman reminded me of the attention the physicist Donna Strickland received in the fall, when she won the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming only the third woman to do so in history. Denizens of the internet banded together to fashion a new Wikipedia page—the commemorative plaque of the internet—that went into detail about her work. The male colleagues with whom she shared the prize already had pages.

The well-intentioned cheers for Bouman propagated a different conventional narrative, though—that of the myth of the lone genius. The idea that scientific breakthroughs originate with a single brilliant mind (usually male, usually white) is widespread but inaccurate. As Bouman became the unwitting face of the Event Horizon Telescope, some of her collaborators chimed in to point out that “big science happens in BIG teams.” The groundbreaking photograph of a black hole, they said, was not the eureka moment of one smart person, but the effort of more than 200 researchers—plus countless additional staff, from telescope technicians to the shipping guy who made sure the computer disks, bursting with data, arrived safely at laboratories.

Bouman made this very point herself in a TED Talk from 2016 that also made the rounds, and in a Facebook post she published Thursday after her name had ricocheted around the internet for hours. “No one algorithm or person made this image,” she wrote. “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.” Bouman was otherwise mostly absent from social media, where many scientists cultivate a presence to promote their work—but where women are more likely to be targets of harassment.

MIT would eventually clarify that its first tweet had overstated Bouman’s role. Her contributions, while significant to the project, inspired the methods that the team eventually used to construct the final image. Perhaps the narrow spotlight had not sat well with other people on the team and MIT was hearing about it. Or perhaps the institution wanted to deflect further attention from Bouman, whose name, by that point, was being dragged through the mud in other communities.

Internet trolls declared that the credit for the algorithms belonged not to Bouman, but to one of her colleagues—who, coincidentally, happens to fit the classical description of a gifted computer scientist: a bespectacled white man. This man, they said, had written most of the code for the project, not her. Within hours, his visage, buoyed by sexist claims and misogynist commentary, was chasing Bouman’s online.

The colleague, Andrew Chael, defended Bouman. None of the claims was true, he tweeted. “If you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away,” he added. It’s difficult to imagine internet sleuths digging for proof of dishonesty if the poster child of the black-hole discovery had looked like Chael. (Chael, in an interview with The Washington Post, called it “ironic” that his new fans chose him, a gay astronomer, as their hero.)

Bouman has laid low throughout the saga. Her phone became so flooded with messages that she simply turned it off, she told The New York Times. Her story moved forward without her. Before the week was over, Bouman, who will soon join the California Institute of Technology as an assistant professor, had a brand-new digital presence fueled by well-meaning supporters on one side, trolls on the other, and a slew of parasitic impersonators with ambiguous motives jammed somewhere in between.

Bouman’s Wikipedia page was once flagged for deletion because the site’s standards found that she was “not notable” enough. Now it carries a paragraph detailing her viral story and the harassment that followed, like a cautionary tale for other women in the sciences. It is both a reminder and a warning. Hard work deserves recognition, but what happens when there’s too much?