In Memoriam Katherine Johnson


The phrase “in memoriam” is a Latin phrase meaning “in memory of.”   It is a phrase that used to be used on epitaphs, the words carved on gravestones.  However, in the case of Katherine Johnson, instead of being reminded by an epitaph of the significance of her life, all you have to do to remember is legacy is go out when there is a full moon and look up.   If there were to be an appropriate epitaph for Katherine Johnson, it would be “they asked her for the moon, and she gave it to them.”

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician who played a crucial role in the American space program:   she was one of black women hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley’s Research Center in Virginia, which later became apart of NASA.   At this time, computing was done by hand, and the mathematicians like Katherine Johnson were known as “computers” before IBM developed computing machines that came to be used at NASA.

And yet at a critical juncture in the space program, when NASA went from suborbital flights to orbital flights, the orbital trajectory that the IBM machine calculated showed a difference between the one calculated previously.   Was this due to a change in the data, or was there a mistake in the calculations?   John Glenn, the first astronaut to go on an orbital flight, was concerned and specifically requested that Katherine Johnson recheck the calculations.   She showed that they checked out, and that gave John Glenn the confidence to go ahead with the mission as planned.

For those of you who want to know more about the life of Katherine Johnson, I recommend the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and of course the film of the same name starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson.   The film also portrays other African-American women pioneers of the space program:  Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe).

Dorothy Vaughn saw the coming of the computing machines, and became the first black woman who became a supervisor at the Langley Research Center.  The the black women mathematicians on her team were in danger of losing their jobs to the computing machines which could outperform them in terms of speed.   But she got in front of the technological curve and learned how to program those machines, thus ensuring that her team would still be employed by NASA, but now in the capacity as computer programmers.

Mary Jackson was the first black female engineer employed at the Langley Research Center, and she was hired by the aerodynamics group.  Since Langley was in Virginia, which was still segregated in terms of education at that time, she had to petition the court to be able to take night classes at the college that normally only took white students.

In personal terms, the book and the movie were a revelation to me, and I found myself with conflicting emotions:   joy at watching the accomplishments of this woman, but also angry in a way that I had never about the story of her life before.   I had a special fascination for the character of Katherine Johnson, because mathematics was the love of my life as a child.   Although nowhere near the level that Katherine Johnson was at in terms of understanding mathematics, I was nonetheless fascinated with the subject until I was in college studying engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.    But I took a turn after graduating towards the study of languages, and ended up getting my master’s degree in Asian Studies at the same university.   I graduated with a double major in Chinese and Japanese, and ended up moving to Japan after graduation.   I am back here in the United States, and became a project manager because I like figure out how systems fit together, systems of people and of machines.

Mathematics was like an old childhood friend to me that I had never seen again after graduating, but then I read the book and saw the film, and I fell in love with mathematics once more.   I signed up at brilliant.org, a site dedicated to teaching students at all levels about mathematics, physics, and computer science.   Working on math problems, and the “aha” moment that comes when you get the right answer, was a rediscovered joy for me, and I owe it to the memory of Katherine Johnson for re-sparking my interest in mathematics.   As Plutarch once said, “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

I hope that some young people today who watch Hidden Figures go out and night, look up at the moon, and wonder:  maybe we should go back.  So, in keeping with her connection to the space program, I conclude with the words that that Mission Control often used when astronauts were launching into space:   Godspeed, Katherine Johnson!

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