I have never watched Hidden Figures.
Was that a bad way to start off an article concerning the late Katherine Johnson, the NASA legend whose persistence, precision, and proclivity for mathematics sent America to space in the 1960s?
Maybe it was. Many a person still asks me if I’ve seen the films and television series that try to capture the work of mathematicians: Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, Hidden Figures, Interstellar, Numb3rs. . . . The answer is usually no. I am maybe a little behind the times when it comes to math movies, but I am far less concerned with that, at the moment, than I am with my lack of knowledge of one of the most influential mathematicians in history. Before sitting down to write this post, I knew the following about Katherine Johnson: she was a woman, she was African-American, she worked at NASA, and she was virtually unrecognized until receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and her story was told in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. Oh, and of course the all-important fact that without her, sending American men to orbit the Earth and walk on the moon may have taken years longer than it actually did. Can I tell you about Hilbert? Yes. Can I tell you about Rudin, about Lebesgue, about Riemann? Of course. But could I tell you about this great woman who challenged the beliefs and the norm of her time? Until today, I am ashamed to admit that the answer to that question would be no.
I was raised with a conservative background, and surrounded by families who believed a woman’s primary purpose was to take care of a home. For years, I heard my parents praise the intelligence of my older brothers, especially the oldest in our family, who was overtly encouraged to take math courses none of the rest of us were, because he was apparently of mathematical mind. On the other hand, even though I usually did fairly well in my elementary math classes in high school, I was never told that I should consider the pursuit of a scientific career. When I mentioned one night at the dinner table that I wanted to major in math, I remember my father quizzically — if not astonishingly — asking me, “You like math?” Then came an obstacle I will never forget: two years of pouring as much undergraduate-level mathematics down my throat that I could to make it into a graduate program by fall 2018. In those two years, anxiety induced by my male classmates and, yes, sometimes my male professors, nearly crippled me (as a disclaimer, my male professors also encouraged me greatly: one of them became my mentor, and often went out of his way to encourage the women in the math program at my university). I thought that I was stupid and would never be as good as they were at mathematics. I can look back on that time now and see that I was clearly intelligent, possibly as intelligent as anyone in my school, perhaps just in a different way — a questioning, a persistent, a precise way.
And this is partly why my heart is drawn to the life of Katherine: she asked questions. She was precise and careful even when it hurt, even when the men around her weren’t used to being questioned by any woman, especially not by a black woman. She maintained her persistence through an era of cruel segregation, when she could only work in the same room as other black women, and still said that the level of segregation felt at NASA (then known as NACA) was not as bad as the level of segregation in the rest of her 1960s world. In spite of the lack of empathy of her surroundings, she was still brave. Still dedicated to the inexorable precision required by mathematics. Still humble. Still cognizant of the truth. Still aware of equality.
Forty years after her calculations allowed Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon and subsequently make it safely back to earth, I am thankful for Katherine’s legacy of leadership. Thankful for the role model she is for me. Thankful for the evidence that no matter a woman’s background, she can rise above the lies she may once have been told, accept herself and her intelligence, and make an impact. And lastly, thankful for the truth that Katherine stood for when she said, “I was no better than anyone else, but no one was any better than me.”
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