The focus of this post is on three women who practiced purpose driven math, specifically the kind of purpose driven math that takes human into space. The recent movie Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same name, tells their life stories. They are Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson, played by Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson in the movie, respectively. I talked about the movie and what the life stories of these trailblazers meant to me in a post in a companion blog. In this post, I would like to talk about their mathematical achievements, especially the work of Katherine Johnson.

This Scientific American article has a short biographical sketch for each of the three mathematicians. The focus here is on Katherine Johnson.

Back in the 1950s, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, hired African American females to work as “computers”, essentially performing and verifying calculations for the engineers. Johnson did not get hired at first. However, once she started working for NACA as a computer, she eventually stood out. She was always asking questions – the how, the why and the why not. She tried to take the tasks to a higher level while most other “computers” would just do the job and never ask questions.

Her inquisitiveness was due to her life long passion for learning from a young age. Her love for mathematics began early. She was ready for school before the the traditional starting age and watched her sibling going off to school with envy. By the time she did go to school, she began her studies in second grade. By age ten, Johnson started high school. Throughout her college years (West Virginia State College), Johnson was inquisitive and immersed in the mathematics program. She honed her math skills, especially in geometry, that would enable her to make her mark in the space program.

After President John F. Kennedy charged the country to send a man to the moon, Johnson became part of the team that did the calculations for space flight. According to information from NASA, her notable achievements include the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s flight in 1959 as well as the trajectory analysis for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962 (at Glenn’s request). In Glenn’s flight in 1962, the trajectory was for the first time computed by electronic computer. But at Glenn’s insistence, Johnson was asked to verify the calculations just to be sure everything would work as expected. Johnson was also pivotal in the calculation for the trajectory path for the first actual moon landing in 1969.

Subsequently Johnson also worked on the space shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite. She had authored or coauthored 26 research reports.

The story of Johnson is an inspiring and a trail blazing figure. Here is a short biographical piece from NASA. Here is a piece about an exhibit that highlights the work of the human computers portrayed in Hidden Figures.

With her achievement in the space program and with her extraordinary life story, she is a natural spoke person for STEM education and careers. She would tell her audience, “We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”

She is a natural spoke person for purpose driven math too.

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2017 – Dan Ma

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