Significant figures: Katherine Johnson

Biography of Katherine Johnson, NASA human computer and research mathematician

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Image: NASA Langley, CC By-NC 2.0.

This year, on 26 August, one of the most memorable and well-known mathematicians, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, celebrated her 100th birthday. This is a tribute in honour of her life so far.

Family life and first steps towards mathematics

A postcard of Katherine’s hometown

Katherine was born on 26 August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, a small town in West Virginia. She was the youngest of four children and was always the smart kid-she finished high school at the age of 14 and earned her Bachelor of Science in mathematics and French from the West Virginia State University at the age of 18. This, in part, was thanks to her father, who moved the family closer to a school to help his children get a better education. She still remembers her family dearly. Especially fondly, Katherine talks about her father’s stepmother, known as granny. They would visit her house to eat some of her delicious pancakes-just as anyone would with their grandmothers! The four children loved their parents very much: they thought of their mother as the prettiest lady in the world and their dad as the most handsome man. Katherine says she was daddy’s girl, but she always remembers her father telling her, “you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.

Katherine was always good at mathematics. She has memories from childhood very clearly linking her to the subject: “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed… anything that could be counted, I did”. But mathematics wasn’t the only subject for her. Sure, she loved it, but she was just as good in English because it also felt logical to her.

When asked why mathematics became the subject she was most fond of, she says it was because it was the subject you had to work hard for. It was the one subject with a right and a wrong, and once you got it right, it was right-unlike history!

The next push towards maths came at university. In eighth grade she had a maths teacher who happened to teach at the university Katherine went to years later. One day, she happened to meet the teacher again, who told her “if you aren’t in my math class this semester, I’m coming after you!” So Katherine had no choice but to go to maths class and her career in mathematics had begun. Later at university, her maths interests were taken care of by Mr Claytor. He added courses to the university almost exclusively for Katherine because he could see her potential. It was he who steered her towards research mathematics and eventually NASA.

Female mathematician at NASA

Katherine started her career in a rather unusual manner-she became a computer. Back then, these were the people who did the calculations for NASA’s predecessor NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) before the space race began. Katherine was sent to the flight research division.

She counts her character as one of the key things that contributed towards her career as a NASA mathematician. She remembers how her siblings and parents always used to try to shush her because she was always so assertive and stubborn. After she was invited to join the men doing the mathematics behind the calculations she would perform, she started fighting for her own place within the team. She demanded to see all the data, and asked to join the confidential meetings NACA held, slowly gaining respect in the midst of the all-male team.

Especially noted in the recent film Hidden Figures are the times when Johnson overcame and battled racism, as the only female and the only African American in the department. Katherine herself always says, though, it was never anything special: she just did her job and was appreciated for that, not her sex or skin colour.

On 20 February 1962, Friendship 7 was to be launched. Modern technological computers were already running the numbers and everything was being prepared for the mission that would make John Glenn the first American to orbit the earth. The astronaut, however, was feeling uneasy. He made the call to NASA to speak to Katherine Johnson. Would she redo the calculations?, he asked. Because if she got it right, he knew it was right-he would feel safe to go on the mission. Katherine approved the computer’s calculations. She admits the NASA team was much more worried about Glenn never making it back to Earth. If he missed the trajectory by a few degrees or tried entering at a different velocity, he would never return home.

Aerial view of Apollo 11

The mission was successful and Katherine also checked the trajectory for the Freedom 7, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions, further proving her incredible mathematical skills.
As a token from NASA, Katherine received an American flag that flew to the moon.

At this point you may wonder-wait, you’re telling me about all these amazing things she has done, but you aren’t sharing any of the maths. Unfortunately, many of her articles aren’t available to the public. However, the three that are, are described below. I must warn you-all contain sophisticated mathematics and will most certainly take quite a while to wrap your head around.

Skopinski & Johnson, 1960

However, I can give you some insight into what the three papers contain. The first paper (Skopinski & Johnson, 1960) focuses on calculating the azimuth angle when placing a satellite over a predetermined position to ensure safe landing.

The second paper (Westrick & Johnson, 1962) is an analysis of the data from the Echo 1 satellite. It contains a lot of very nice graphs-it’s worth having a look just for the curves!

The third paper (White & Johnson, 1964) probably has the toughest maths, but similar to the first one, it focuses on finding solutions of some variables for the landing of a satellite. Arm yourself with some patience-the papers are worth your time even if they might seem a bit daunting at first!

After NASA

She retired from NASA in 1986, but she still has her hands full. For 50 years she enjoyed singing in a church choir. She loves playing bridge and other mathematical games, and she plays the piano and enjoys spending time with her six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She has authored or co-authored 26 research papers, and she has worked on the space shuttle and Project Apollo’s lunar lander. For her achievements and lifelong work, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 2016, the BBC named Katherine in their 100 Women 2016 as one of the most inspiring women alive. And then there’s the aforementioned film Hidden Figures, which revealed the story behind the three brilliant mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and of course Katherine, which has since conquered my and many other mathematicians’ hearts.

Katherine Johnson has been an inspiration for mathematicians all around the world, showing how one person can change so much. From gaining respect in one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world in times of unimaginable discrimination, to creating mathematics which helped many astronauts find their way back home; from simply being a wonderful person to being an incredibly talented mathematician-here’s to Katherine Johnson on her 100th birthday!

References

  1. Hidden Figures, directed by Theodor Melfi.
  2. TH Skopinski, Katherine G Johnson, Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, September 1960.
  3. Gertrude C Westrick, Katherine G Johnson, Orbital Behavior of the Echo I Satellite and its Rocket Casing During the First 500 Days, June 1962.
  4. Jack A White, Katherine G Johnson, Approximate Solutions for Flight-Path Angle of a Reentry Vehicle in the Upper Atmosphere, July 1964.

Gerda is a Latvian third year undergraduate mathematics student at the University of Edinburgh. Her favourite Platonic solids are currently the icosahedron, closely followed by the tetrahedron. In her free time, Gerda enjoys dancing in the university’s salsa society and looking after her ever-growing collection of plants.
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