The Amend Corner

Of black holes and trolls

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There was big news on the astronomy front earlier this month when a team of researchers managed to take the picture of an actual black hole. It was an impressive achievement, but some people used the news about it to denigrate a key member of the team.

Now, about those black holes. I’m not an expert on astronomical stuff, so my knowledge about black holes is pretty skimpy. All I know for sure is that there are too many of them to count out there, even if you found a way to use the fingers and toes of  every person on the planet. 

Astronomers, though, know all about them. Somebody theorized more than 200 years ago that such objects exist, but nobody has ever actually seen one. That’s because a black hole has such strong gravity that even light cannot escape its pull — and when you’re talking about taking pictures, that’s a problem. If light can’t escape the gravity of an object, whether it’s an astronomical body or your Aunt Hermione, and travel in the photographer’s direction, he can’t take a picture of it. Consequently, astronomers could only verify the existence of a black hole by looking at the behavior of the particles and gasses in the hole’s neighborhood with X-ray telescopes.

This team of researchers, though, worked out a complex process to take an actual photograph of a black hole. How they did it is mind-boggling, but I think I know the basics.  What they did was engage a number of telescopes around the world and aim them all at where the black hole was known to exist, synchronized to photograph the target simultaneously. The result was a mountain of digital information about what the telescopes saw, more than all the iPhones in the world could handle. A computer algorithm then sorted through all the data and assembled it into historic snapshot.

One thing, though, bothers me about this photo session. As I noted above, you can’t photograph something that is emitting no light. So what the researchers obtained for all that work was a photo of a black dot. You can only tell there is a black hole there by the glowing ring around the black dot. Otherwise, it’s really sort of a picture of nothing.

That fact aside, this whole amazing process involved years of work by a team of researchers. The huge block of information captured by the telescopes had to be sorted and organized.

As it happened, though, one member of the team drew special attention. Somebody took a picture of Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old researcher, celebrating the success of the programming, and the photo found its way onto the internet, and it drew negative attention from individuals known generally as “trolls.” Trolls, it seems, look for things to be offended or angry about. In this case, they took offense because Bouman was singled out for praise — even though she had done far less work than others, specifically the men who worked on the project and especially Andrew Chael, who had produced a large software library the computers needed to sort and organize the data..

The trolls attacked Bouman the way such people usually do, attacking her character and demeaning her for taking credit for the success of the project, despite the fact that Bouman had done no such thing. She insisted that the project succeeded because dozens of individuals contributed their knowledge and skills. It was a team project, she said.

Chael himself came to Bouman’s defense. While he reiterated that the project was carried out by hundreds of scientists, he noted that Bouman had led the effort to develop the algorithm that turned the data produced by the telescopes into a photograph. Without that algorithm, science would still be waiting for the first photo of a black hole, so Bouman’s contribution to the effort, no matter how small, was crucial.

Chael went on to give the trolls a bit of advice. He thanked them for recognizing the important contributions he had made to the project, but then he added: “… if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away and reconsider your priorities in life.”

The incident reveals an unfortunate tendency in our society, one that has been magnified by the use of social media. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms make it all too easy for some to attack others without much risk to the attacker, who can hide behind a screen ID while questioning another’s achievements, character or integrity. Those responsible for creating the platforms that allow such activity say they are trying to police their sites to prevent hateful messages from being circulated, but trolls still find ways to attack their victims. The attacks on Bouman were quickly scrubbed from the social media platforms, limiting the damage, but the notion that she does not deserve credit for the first photograph of a black hole will likely continue to circulate, and those who harbor animosity toward her will continue to believe that she “stole” the credit for the feat from another scientist.

That is unfortunate, but it can be countered by actions such as those taken by Chael, who did nothing more than counter the negative messages with the truth. Truth is the ultimate weapon against the misinformation and outright lies that too many people employ when they wish to place a black mark against someone they wish to damage.

America needs more people who are willing to search for the truth. That’s the only sure way to defeat the trolls.

The Amend Corner

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