Dr. Talithia Williams is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College and cohost of the PBS series NOVA Wonders, premiering in April 2018. Her upcoming book, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, takes aim at the forgotten influence of women on the development of mathematics over the last two millennia. Here’s the story of NASA mathematician Katharine G. Johnson. Sound familiar? You may know her from the Oscar-nominated movie, Hidden Figures.
Katharine G. Johnson
“Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.”—Katherine G. Johnson on the Apollo 13 mission
At a family gathering in 1952, Johnson learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians for its Guidance and Navigation Department. She was hired in 1953 and moved with her family to be near the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. There she performed mathematical calculations, including analyzing data from flight tests, along with other women in the “pool.” Her extensive knowledge of analytic geometry as well as her inquisitive nature led to a temporary assignment on an all-male flight research team. She became an invaluable member, attending editorial meetings (a taboo for women at that time) and contributing to various projects. There she performed mathematical calculations from 1953 to 1958 in the West Area computer section and the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division.
Despite the fact that all those working at the division did research, Johnson and the other African American women in the computing pool had a work area—“Colored Computers”—separate from their white counterparts. Although NASA disbanded segregated work areas in 1958, disparities remained. Johnson recalled:
In the early days of NASA, women were not allowed to put their names on the reports—no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston . . . but Henry Pearson, our supervisor—he was not a fan of women—kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, ‘Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.’ So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time that a woman in our division had her name on something.
Prepare to be inspired. Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics is a full-color volume that takes aim at the forgotten influence of women on the development of mathematics over the last two millennia.
You’ll see each eminent mathematician come to life on each page, women like the astronomer-philosopher Hypatia, theoretical physicist Emmy Noether, and rocket scientist Annie Easley.
Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics is an affirmation of female genius and a celebration of the boundless applications of mathematics. See their stories!