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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Woman of the Month: Katherine Johnson


Katherine Johnson
This is only the second time I've featured a real-life person as Woman of the Month, but in keeping with this blog's interest in science-fiction (among all the other subgenres of speculative fiction) I'd say that a mathematics genius working at NASA during the most crucial and exciting years of the American/Russian Space Race certainly deserves the spotlight.
Which is fitting, since Katherine Johnson's role in Hidden Figures (as well as her guest-starring part in NBC's Timeless) is all about finally giving credit where credit is due. Like many on hearing the premise of Hidden Figures, my first reaction was: "how on earth did I not know about this?"
Along with dozens of other black women in the 1960s, Katherine was a "human computer" who calculated trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, as well as rendezevous paths for the Apollo lunar lander and command module flights to the Moon. I'm not even sure what some of that means, but it clearly demonstrates a staggering level of intelligence.
I had mixed thoughts on some of the creative decisions in Hidden Figures, but if one thing was vividly captured, it was the utterly stupid banality of the prejudice Katherine and her companions had to face. One of the most brilliant minds of her age, working with people who were aiming to put a human being on the moon – and they were worried about who drinks from what coffee cup?
That she maintained such dignity and composure in the face of such galling pettiness inspires just as much respect as her mathematic achievements, and that she and her fellow "computers" have finally been recognized for their intellect, perseverance and work ethic makes you hope that sometimes justice is done. The best part is that at the grand age of ninety-nine, Katherine lived to see it!

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