Today we want to tell you about a little girl with her beloved numbers: Katherine Johnson. Maybe you have never heard this name, do you know why? Because the skin color of Katherine was not considered as a color that would suit a smart, brilliant and incredible mathematician. Her mother was a teacher and her father a farmer and janitor, but Katherine had a gift. When she was just 10 years old, she started to attend high school given that she enjoyed mathematics and could easily solve mathematical equations.
In 1940 she became one of the first African Americans to enroll in the mathematics program and thirteen years later she joined Langley Research Center as a research mathematician for the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), which became NASA in 1958 (National Aeronautics Space Administration). She was part of a group of African American female mathematicians who were called “human computers”, performing complex computations and analyzing data for aerospace engineers.
When Johnson went on to join the Spacecraft Controls Branch, his calculations on the sheets translated into trajectories towards the stars: she calculed the flight trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969.
Now that you know Katherine Johnson a little better, don’t you think she deserves to be remembered? Each of us knows who Neil Armstrong is, but hardly anyone knows who sent him into space. The director Theodore Melfi thought of paying homage to the talent of this incredible woman with the film Hidden Figures.
On the 6th January 2017 the movie “Hidden Figures”, inspired by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, was released in cinemas: for the first time the untold story of the three African American women who revolutionized the history of mathematics and science was shared with the world.
The director Theodore Melfi told us about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who challenged racism and sexism to achieve their goals.
Taraji P. Henson, who played the character of Katherine Johnson, had the honor of meeting her in person. She said: “What I did find that was parallel in our lives was math, which I hated.” It’s ironic Henson is playing a math whiz, as she told she was never good at math. Kathrine Johnson was the only one of the three scientists who survived and saw the film. The day of the awarding of the Oscars she was greeted by the audience with a standing ovation.
Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, is the first African-American woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at the NACA, later known as NASA. She was the head of the West Area Computers, leading a group of African-American mathematicians through crucial space projects.
The actress said in an interview: “What I learned from playing Dorothy Vaughan is that I have a voice and that I have to use it for people who don’t have a voice or whose voice is somehow subdued by whatever’s happening in society”.
Last but not least, Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, was the mathematician and NASA’s first black female engineer. She influenced the hiring and promoting of women in science, engineering and mathematics careers at NASA. The singer and actress said she was proud to be a part of a story so many people didn’t know about.
Margot Lee Shetterly said: “As a child […] I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” The writer chose for her book the title “Hidden figures” because it represents a play on words with double meaning: in English “figures” means both “digits” and “people”.
For a long time, Afro Americans were seen as people of little importance, or even insignificant people … let alone they were women! It’s not easy to prove you’re worth when others are blinded by prejudices. In a segregated America, where if you are not of the superior race of whites, you can get kicked out of a bus, treated like a slave, deprived of any comfort, such as the use of the public bathroom, it’s not easy to make your way.
But Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson taught us that no obstacle is too big to destroy your dream. As Katherine Johnson said: “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
When others point out your limits, you show them that you are able to overcome them. Do like Katherine Johnson: she has reached the immense and infinite space at that time unknown.