Congratulations to African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson who is celebrating her 100th birthday today. Her calculations of orbital mechanics at NASA were critical to the success of the first U.S. manned spaceflights. The Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures honored her genius in 2016 with actress Taraji P. Henson portraying the young Johnson’s reputation for brilliantly forecasting flight trajectories using complex manual computations. Her leadership helped to establish confidence in the use of computers to perform the same tasks, yet astronaut John Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson manually verified the computer’s numbers. WATCH a wonderful clip… (1918)
The West Virginia math prodigy graduated from high school when she was just 14 years old, and her college, West Virginia State, had to add new math courses just for Katherine.
At NASA, which was still racially segregated at the time, her knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of her white male bosses. She worked out rendezvous paths for the Apollo lunar lander on flights to the Moon and, later her calculations were essential to launching the Space Shuttle program. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them, and never really felt them. She was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply stated that she had done the work and that she belonged… There is even a Barbie doll based on the female role model.
MORE Good News on this Day:
- Michelangelo was commissioned to carve the Pietà (1498)
- The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was approved by the Constituent Assembly as the founding document of the French Revolution, stating, like the US Declaration that came before it, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” (1789)
- Liberia was proclaimed an independent republic (1847)
- Albert Sabin, the Polish-American doctor who developed the polio vaccine that would block the virus from the bloodstream and break the chain of transmission, was born (1906)
- Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Albanian Catholic nun who made it her life’s work to care for the sick and poor in India, was born (1910)
- The 19th amendment to US Constitution took effect, giving women the right to vote (1920)
- Major league baseball was televised for the first time, a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field on W2XBS (1939)
- Sigmund Jähn became first German cosmonaut, on board Soyuz 31 (1978)
- In a pioneering operation in Britain, the world’s first battery-operated ‘bionic’ heart, a titanium and plastic device manufactured in America, went to a 62-year-old who had only months to live (1994)
- Russia recognized the independence of the former Georgian breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008)
Working on lakes and rivers, at first with the use of paddles, these boats would eventually revolutionize the commercial transportation of passengers and freight, particularly along the Mississippi River, as described by Mark Twain in his books.