Sat. Apr 20th, 2019

Sexist black holes | Science

Sexist black holes | Science

The image of the supermassive black hole of the center of the galaxy M87 presented last April 10 with unusual international deployment, it deserved the attention not only of the specialized press but of all the media to a greater or lesser degree and, consequently, of the social networks themselves. It is not something strange in astronomical subjects, even when they are something so distant, and not only in distance, to the habitual events that are of popular interest. In any case, the image was not self-explanatory and it was necessary to tell its story to allow its relevance to be understood. To begin with, it is a black hole, a term that is already part of colloquial speech but that does not stop being a strange and counterintuitive astronomical object and born of a theory, the General Relativity of Einstein, which continues with its halo of magic or mystery after more than a century of its publication. It is not uncommon for many headlines to focus, once again, on Einstein and how he was right.

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The way of obtaining the image is also special and complicated, even for a world like astronomy where everything goes to understand the universe: a technique that combines synchronized observations of radio telescopes around the world to obtain data that, after a long and complex processing, produces that bitmap of how they are the vicinity of the black hole where matter falls forming an accretion disk and warms up before disappearing engulfed by the monster. Two hundred people signing the articles, the collaboration of eight observatories, of large research institutes, the use of information technologies ... It is not something new, but it is still remarkable, in the same division where the LHC or LIGO play from the media point of view.

But to be able to have an attractive news all this needs the dressing to transmit the scale of the deed. Appropriate metaphors are needed. For example, we can talk about the superresolution obtained with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT for its acronym in English), which would allow us to distinguish a single atom 1 meter away or the famous orange on the surface of the Moon. Or that the information processed to obtain this image is that of all music published in the history of humanity, well, a million times more. They are comparisons that simply translate into the mind of the person who hears them or reads them in "un montonazo", but they work. What's more, all this indicates that the technological achievement of starting up so many people and so many teams to get the image is something not negligible, but on the contrary, and that only now we can start doing these things. They were not possible at the beginning of the 80s when the first transoceanic observations with antennas began to observe in detail the Universe; not even a few years ago, without computing power and, above all, algorithms capable of making the data shine in that ocean of noise and conjecture.

It is not the first case of emotional information, that "great evil of journalism", as I heard a long time ago from Rosa María Calaf, referring, of course, to more bleeding topics

However, in this story there were also some beautiful human stories, of those that the current journalism uses (abusively many times) as a hook to keep the attention of those who read and, thus, fulfill part of their goal. In the case of M87 is the story of Dr. Katie Bouman, from MIT, and it works perfectly, because it symbolizes very well that new science that transforms data and wills into knowledge. I admit it: although I had read about the project to obtain an image of the shadow of a supermassive black hole almost 20 years ago, in the hands of European radio astronomers, The EHT project came to me through the networks when they passed me the link to a TEDx talk from November 2016. If you have not seen it, I recommend it: it contains all the elements that confirmed the data and the scientific publications a week ago.

It is not uncommon that the photo that Dr. Bouman shared on her Instagram began last Wednesday to run through the networks like gunpowder. Its center, the Computer and Artificial Interligence Laboratory (CSAIL) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spread it on Twitter, also putting at his side the image of another fundamental woman 50 years ago so that the manned trip to the Moon, Margaret Hamilton, also from MIT, was a reality.

Many media echoed the story of Bouman and we all understood that it was a good idea to bring the intangible that was presented in the image to the people. Is it some trivialization of the news? Without a doubt, but we can not complain too much. From a strictly journalistic point of view, the news is on the side of astronomy: it is a discovery related to a distant object and its contextualization usually comes from the professionals of the subject. If you want to emphasize the relevance of the method, the effort of the very long-term interferometry techniques that have made it possible and the complex process of the image will undoubtedly be noted. Big data that already begins to be daily also in the study of the Cosmos. It is not, however, the first case of emotional information, that "great evil of journalism", as I heard a long time ago from Rosa María Calaf, referring, of course, to more bleeding topics. Moreover, in science we understand that this human component allows people to approach it. And even more so when, because we are women, we must always support greater visibility.

But this is the fact that, in a phenomenon that has grown in the last year, it has awakened the beast. Suddenly, Katie Bouman was no more than a parasite who took advantage of her reputation for the work of hundreds of scientists simply for being a pretty face. Men, said the habitual ones of this type of macho message, to those that ninguneaba for the sake of the political correction. Of course, no one had done such a thing, but we already know that in social networks the best strategy is to create a straw enemy so that it can be beaten. These statements, and I refuse to put the links because they do not deserve the amplification that is granted with them, included for example that Bouman had only written a few tens of thousands of lines of algorithm code that, they claimed, was not even the definitive for get the picture, while his partner, Andrew Chael, who was presented as white and straight man to understand that although he had written 850,000 lines of the same code had not been given credit. On Reddit and Twitter these statements, although they are always false and malicious, work because they travel quickly and deeply to all the sites of the network.

The MIT laboratory, the CSAIL, has had to post on Twitter a thread explaining how not a single algorithm or a single person are responsible for the photo, because we are talking about a team effort and a process of years, but without a doubt Bouman is part of that achievement that they celebrate

In this case the accusation was rather pathetic, because Chael, an astrophysicist, is nothing heterosexual, with what to call him "straight white man" is undoubtedly insulting (they do it to me and it would seem a real spit on my rights). But, above all, it is false: the code is certainly accessible in Github, in the same way that the articles are published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and there one can speculate what he wants, but the people who sign are the ones who consensually agree They are responsible for the whole process and their communication. The same Chael explained it on Twitter in a thread last 12 (***), where he added, in case someone wanted to know, that almost a million lines of code nothing, that did not reach 60,000, and that he did not know how many were his and how many of his companion. The MIT laboratory, the CSAIL, also had to post a thread on Twitter explaining how not a single algorithm or a single person are responsible for the photo, because we are talking about a team effort and a process of years, but Bouman is without a doubt part of that achievement they celebrate. The logical thing, although this does not silence the barking of the machista pack.

The question, then, is not whether Katie Bouman was "the news" inside that image of the black hole of M87, because we can all understand that if not the central thing was a good story within the news and that shows how interdisciplinarity and collaboration are key in the new science of this century. The issue is, as it often happens, how when in history, whether it's science or other issues, a woman stands out, she becomes the object of sexist assaults, too tolerated by people in general. And that this happens in the field of science is more worrisome because this should be, at least it seemed, a realm of rationality and arguments based on something more than prejudices or disdains.

But it is even worse: as the days go by, the news of the original photo has been losing strength and even the funny memes of a few days ago have gone out of fashion, but the harassment and insult to Katie Bouman remains and continues to grow, protected precisely in those who, in the world of networks, usually allow identical harassment and ninguneo to any woman who dares to excel. Although it was not for his will but for being part of a beautiful story, the first photo of a black hole that nobody imagined that could be done.

Javier Armentia He is an astrophysicist at the Pamplona Planetarium. @javierarmentia


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