Emerging from obscurity: 2019's unforeseen history-makers

Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg (C) arrives at the COP25 Climate Conference on December 06, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Greta arrived in Madrid after a ten-hour journey by train from Lisbon, Portugal to attend the Global March for Climate rally that will be held in the Spanish capital this evening.
Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg (C) arrives at the COP25 Climate Conference on December 06, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Greta arrived in Madrid after a ten-hour journey by train from Lisbon, Portugal to attend the Global March for Climate rally that will be held in the Spanish capital this evening.
Image: PABLO BLAZQUEZ DOMINGUEZ/Getty Images

Of the many people who made history in 2019, some surprised themselves and the world by emerging from obscurity to make their mark.

These are some of the history-makers in politics, climate and humanitarian activism, music and astronomy who were unknown quantities in 2018.

 

Trump impeachment 'Whistleblower'

Though huge efforts have been made to expose him, the person whose complaint threatens to bring down the president of the US is still known only as “The Whistleblower”.

Reliably reported to be a mid-level, male CIA analyst in his early 30s who specialises in East European issues and previously worked in the White House, he filed an anonymous complaint in August charging that Donald Trump pressured Ukraine counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to help find dirt on his Democratic rivals — a violation of US laws against seeking foreign help in US elections.

By sending his complaint to the inspector-general for the US intelligence community, The Whistleblower set in motion a series of reviews that quickly snowballed into the House impeachment probe that will see Trump put on trial in the Senate in the new year.

Many whistle-blowers stay anonymous, and some collect million-dollar rewards for exposing fraud.

But this one will not gain a reward and likely will not remain unknown. Conservatives have already circulated a name and photograph online.

Republicans in Congress have tried to expose him, alleging he is a Democrat out to get Trump.

But the impeachment process he sparked now fuels itself, meaning that, outed or not, his impact will long be felt in Washington politics.

 

Greta Thunberg, 16, climate activist

What started as humble protest has turned Greta Thunberg into the world's green conscience and the voice of a generation's frustration with inaction on climate change.

It all started in August 2018 when Thunberg decided to skip school and sit outside Sweden's parliament, holding a sign reading “school strike for the climate”.

Within months her struggle gained worldwide attention and the shy 16-year-old — with her piercing eyes and trademark braids — found herself addressing world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the European parliament.

Young people from around the world began staging their own school strikes, and the “Fridays for Future” movement was born.

Following her ethos of avoiding air travel, she crossed the Atlantic on a zero-emission sailboat to attend a UN climate summit in New York in September.

The Stockholm-born teenager's eyes brimmed with tears and her voice cracked with emotion as she delivered a fiery speech to world leaders.

“How dare you?” she thundered.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Thunberg, the daughter of an opera singer mother and an actor-turned-producer father, has also faced severe criticism and been subjected to a swarm of online conspiracy theories.

In this file photo taken on October 5, 2019, police chase down a couple wearing facemasks in the central district in Hong Kong.
In this file photo taken on October 5, 2019, police chase down a couple wearing facemasks in the central district in Hong Kong.
Image: NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

Some have mocked her youth, called her a puppet of doomsayers or tried to discredit her because of her Asperger's syndrome, a diagnosis she has never hidden.

But no-one can deny that the passionate climate activist's struggle has helped put climate change back at the top of the agenda.

 

Hong Kong students

Brandishing Molotov cocktails, black-clad Hong Kong students cast off their bookish, meek image in 2019 to become a global symbol of democratic resistance in the face of unyielding authoritarian power.

Crowds have marched peacefully for greater freedoms since Britain's handover to China in 1997. But this year saw pent-up anger explode in ways once unimaginable for a financial hub that has always prided itself on stability and safety.

What started as a popular protest over a proposed bill allowing extraditions to mainland China morphed into a popular anti-Beijing revolt and turned the city's tourist shopping districts into brick-strewn urban battlegrounds.

The typical front-line protester is university educated and under 30. Arrest and injury figures suggest around a third of those who have taken to the streets are women.

Gas masks with bright pink filters — dubbed “pig snouts” in Cantonese — became ubiquitous as people sought to conceal their identities.

In a year that saw major unrest in the streets of Catalonia, Chile and Venezuela, the David and Goliath image of the leaderless protest movement in Hong Kong caught the global imagination, triggering messages of solidarity from around the world and statements of support from the EU, UN and US.

Embracing the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time”, protesters have battled with riot police, stormed the local legislature and spray-painted their core issues and demands across the city, shredding the notion of a peaceful transition to complete Chinese control in 2047 envisaged in the 50-year “one country, two systems” deal.

Close to 6,000 protesters have been arrested with nearly 1,000 charged. But the crowds keep coming and there is little sign the movement's more moderate supporters are going to abandon frontliners they have dubbed “the braves”.

Faced with regular warnings from Beijing of disastrous consequences should the unrest continue, the protesters have responded with their now omnipresent chant: “If we burn, you burn with us.”

 

In this file photograph taken on April 10, 2019, Alaa Salah, a Sudanese woman propelled to internet fame earlier this week after clips went viral of her leading powerful protest chants against President Omar al-Bashir, addresses protesters during a demonstration in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum.
In this file photograph taken on April 10, 2019, Alaa Salah, a Sudanese woman propelled to internet fame earlier this week after clips went viral of her leading powerful protest chants against President Omar al-Bashir, addresses protesters during a demonstration in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum.
Image: AFP

Revolutionary 'icon' Ala Saleh of Sudan

Ala Saleh, dressed in traditional white Sudanese garb and standing atop a car, became the symbol of Sudan's uprising as she led chants against the now-ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April.

Saleh, 22, was propelled to internet fame after a photograph of her with one hand raised in the air singing and cheering along with crowds of protesters went viral, earning her the moniker of “Kandaka”, or Nubian queen.

An engineering student, Saleh grew up in a middle-class Sudanese family in Khartoum and was relatively unknown until her photograph went viral during the anti-Bashir protests.

But since earlier this year, she has become a voice for women's rights in the northeast African country, where centuries of patriarchal traditions and decades of strict laws under the former regime have severely restricted the role of women in Sudanese society.

“The existing discrimination and inequality women face, coupled with conflict and violence over decades, has resulted in women being subjected to a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence on an epic scale,” Saleh said at an open debate at the UN Security Council last month.

She told the UNSC that even wearing trousers or meeting male friends took courage as it was criminalised under the former regime.

During Bashir's 30-year rule, authorities enforced a strict public order law that activists said primarily targeted women, through harsh interpretations of Islamic sharia law.

On November 26, the country's new transitional cabinet led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok scrapped the law, though the ruling sovereign council has yet to ratify the move.

Saleh has faced criticism for attracting global attention even as many female activists faced brutal punishments during Bashir's rule.

But many defend her rise to fame.

“She was a normal person like all others who took to the streets against the former regime,” said activist Khalid Tabidi.

 

 

In this file photograph taken on May 16, 2019, US computer scientist Katherine Bouman speaks during a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on the "Event Horizon Telescope: The Black hole seen Round the World" in the Rayburn House office building in Washington D.C.
In this file photograph taken on May 16, 2019, US computer scientist Katherine Bouman speaks during a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on the "Event Horizon Telescope: The Black hole seen Round the World" in the Rayburn House office building in Washington D.C.
Image: Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP

The woman who photographed a black hole

US computer scientist Katie Bouman became an overnight sensation in April for her role in developing a computer algorithm that allowed researchers to take the world's first image of a black hole.

The 30-year-old, currently an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), was a member of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration when the team captured the image.

Bouman said she first began working on the EHT as a graduate student studying computer vision at MIT and found that black hole imaging shared striking similarities with work she had done on brain imaging based on limited data from an MRI scanner.

The EHT Collaboration had spent more than a decade building an Earth-sized computational telescope that combined signals received by various telescopes working in pairs around the world.

However, since there were a limited number of locations, the telescopes were able to capture only some light frequencies, leaving large gaps in information.

In 2016, Bouman developed an algorithm named CHIRP to sift through the true mountain of data and fill in the gaps, producing an image.

While the images were captured in 2017, the final result had to be independently validated by four EHT teams working around the world to avoid shared human bias.

On April 10, 2019, a final image was released — a moment that Bouman, then a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, described as “truly amazing and one of my life's happiest memories”.

Testifying before the US Congress in May about her research, Bouman praised her team that included several early-career scientists — like herself — whose work had been vital to the project.

“Like black holes, many early-career scientists with significant contributions often go unseen,” she said.

But that's not the case with her any more.

 

 

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