This morning, I read about Dr. Katie Bouman, a scientist who is about to start teaching at California Institute of Technology and was instrumental in providing the world the first photograph of a black hole. Although I know the story broke yesterday, I haven’t been following it. I’ve had other things on my mind. Still, when I saw a picture of a delighted Dr. Bouman, looking so radiant in the wake of her success, I couldn’t help but stop and read about her. She’s just 29 years old and still adorable in her youth, and yet she’s done something extraordinary. But she did have help…
America loves its heroes. When someone does something extraordinary, or even if it just sounds like they did, that person will soon find themselves on the fast track to fame. Dr. Bouman, to her credit, was quick to point out that she was not the only one responsible for this amazing achievement. Indeed, there was a whole team of scientists from around the world involved in creating the algorithm that made the photograph of the black hole possible. Bouman is certainly worth looking up to, but she’s one of many people who made this happen– and many of the others involved are young women in science (STEM). For example, in the New York Times article I linked, 24 year old graduate student Sara Issaoun, who studies at Radboud University in The Netherlands, is quoted as also having worked on the project.
Yesterday, as the picture of the black hole circulated on social media, I noticed Occupy Democrats made a meme about Dr. Bouman, which was already being circulated. Have a look.
I did see a “corrected” version of this meme, but it still doesn’t address that this discovery was the result of a lot of work by many people, not just one person. I like heroes and heroines as much as anybody does, but let’s not get it twisted. Dr. Bouman, to her credit, isn’t getting it twisted.
I remember back in 2003, when 19 year old Private Jessica Lynch was a prisoner of war in Iraq. The media turned her into a sensation, with wild tales about how she went down fighting the Iraqis before she was finally overcome by her injuries. For months, that was the narrative about Jessica Lynch. They’d turned her into a heroine. Later, the truth came out. Jessica Lynch had never fired a shot. Her weapon had jammed and she was badly hurt in a vehicle accident. To her credit, Lynch tried to set the record straight. I remember seeing her being interviewed on television and she very plainly stated that people were giving her credit where it wasn’t due. She was a young, pretty blonde who had signed up for Army duty. What wasn’t to love about her? She made a great heroine. But when these stories come out and a person becomes “celebrated”, the legend eventually gets debunked, and the fall from grace can be devastating.
Meanwhile, there were seven others from her unit that were captured. One of the captured was 30 year old Shoshana Johnson, who had worked as a cook. She was not as young and photogenic as Lynch was. She is also black. Johnson and the other soldiers, all of whom were male, got a lot less attention than Lynch did at the time. Although critics probably rightfully accused the media and the public of racial bias, in the long run, it might not have been so bad being overlooked. The American public is quick to turn on people. When a person does something that seems great, they may find themselves rocketing to fame. But the minute that person does anything that tarnishes that glow, the pedestal is liable to fall and the person may find themselves falling back to to Earth in a jiffy.
On my old blog, I wrote a number of posts about people who went viral after being caught on camera saying or doing “bad” things. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of this kind of thing. For one thing, everyone has good days and bad days. I don’t like to see people being permanently vilified for having a bad day. Maybe someone gets caught saying or doing something horrible in a one or two minute video, but that video hasn’t captured what led up to the incident, nor does it take into account that those two minutes are just a fraction of a person’s lifetime. Even though news travels fast and notoriety waxes and wanes, thanks to the Internet, stuff stays out there forever. Those kinds of viral posts can affect a person for years. Or, they can make it seem like they’ll affect a person for that long, which can cause them to give up on living.
I do think people are right to congratulate Dr. Katie Bouman for her success in a challenging career, for being a wonderful role model, and for her part in a significant scientific discovery. I don’t condone implying that she was the only one who made that discovery happen, she’s some kind of patron saint of science, or that she came by her success alone. Let’s keep it real.
People are imperfect, and almost no one is 100% good or 100% bad. I mean, as much as I despise people like Donald Trump and Bill’s ex wife, I still recognize that even they aren’t 100% horrible. In Bill’s ex’s case, she kind of saved my place for me and made it so that anything bad I do kind of pales in comparison to her antics. Ditto to whomever takes Donald Trump’s place once he’s finally drop kicked out of the White House.
On a completely unrelated note, every time I think of “black holes”, I’m reminded of assholes. I have my former Peace Corps colleague, Jan, to thank for that.