[David Strom's Web Informant] How women were one of the first computers

David Strom david at strom.com
Fri Dec 9 11:57:49 EST 2016


Web Informant, December 9, 2016: How women were one of the first computers

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, computers were people, not machines. And one
group of these human computers worked at a NASA research lab in southern
Virginia. An upcoming movie, Hidden Figures
<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4846340/?ref_=nv_sr_1>, focuses on how three
of these human computers helped with John Glenn's historic first US orbital
flight in 1962. As you probably know, Glenn died earlier this week
<http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/us/john-glenn-dies.html>at the ripe old
age of 95.

I haven't yet seen the movie -- it will be out in a few weeks. But the
underlying story is terrific. The three human computers turn out to be
three black women mathematicians, including Katherine Johnson who recently
received the Congressional Freedom Medal.

One of the interesting historical notes was *Glenn insisted that Johnson
check the electronic computer's calculations* of his orbit, to make sure
they were accurate. This was back when computers filled rooms and were
slower than the CPUs that are found in the average smartphone nowadays.

Johnson continued to work at NASA until 1986 combining her math talent with
electronic computer skills. Her calculations proved critical to the success
of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle
program, according to this NASA writeup
<https://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine-johnson-the-girl-who-loved-to-count>
.

There are a lot more video interviews with both the actresses Octavia
Spencer, Taraji Henson (who plays Johnson) and Janelle Monae and the real
people behind the story  at NextGov
<http://www.nextgov.com/emerging-tech/2016/12/video-nasa-celebrates-hidden-figures/133599/>
.

In addition to the movie, there is a book by Margot Lee Shetterly that just
was published
<https://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Figures-American-Untold-Mathematicians/dp/0062363603>.
Why did it take so long for this story to come out? Shetterly apparently
learned about the achievements of these women computers from her father,
who "casually mentioned it to her in an offhand comment," according to Rudy
Horne, a math professor at Morehouse College and a consultant to the movie
production. Horne got involved because his college was used as a film
location (the college campus is used to simulate the NASA Langley campus in
southern Virginia where the story takes place), and the director wanted a
real math professor to check his calculations. One of the wonderful
coincidences is that the current NASA administrator and Horne himself are
both African Americans.

Horne was brought on early in the production, before the script was
finalized, to ensure that the math checked out. I called him and asked
about his role. "In the beginning of the film, the young Johnson is shown
solving a series of equations on a blackboard. They originally showed her
solving a functional analysis problem, which is more of a college level
math course. I suggested a set of quadratic equations, which would be more
appropriate for a younger student." Horne made several other suggestions
for the sets and props to show other math formulas. When I asked him what
his favorite math-themed movie was, he said, "Good Will Hunting got the
math right and had very believable scenes that showed how math professors
interact. I am glad that was a consultant to this movie, and it is great if
it will inspire other students to study math and science." As an undergrad
math major, me too.

Comments always welcome here. <http://blog.strom.com/wp/?p=5709>
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