Monday, February 24, 2020

A Remarkable Trajectory

After yesterday's triumphant post about science, here's some sad news, Katherine Johnson, the NASA computer whose mathematics skills were crucial to the success of the United States' manned spaceflight projects, has died at the age of 101:

Largely ignored for the contributions that allowed white men like Alan Shepard and John Glenn to (rightfully) be lauded as heroes, Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman, finally received the adulation she and her colleagues deserved, being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and ending up as one of the subjects of Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 book Hidden Figures (the basis of the eponymous movie). That's a little late for someone whose mathematical work in the 1960s allowed the Apollo lunar modules to synch up with the orbital command modules to safely bring our Moon Men back to Earth.

I feel obligated to point out that sexism and racism ruin everything, and that Civil Rights are crucial to allowing humans to reach their potential. Katherine Johnson was able to succeed in a thirty-three year career with NASA despite the racism and sexism of American society, but it wasn't enough to make her a household name. Things have improved since the not-so-good old days, and NASA created a lovely tribute to her:

While I often rail against the short-term silliness of humanity, I believe in the long-term success of our species... provided we get over our bigotries and our greed. Sure, it looks as if the lunatics have taken over the asylum, but there are enough dedicated, brilliant people, such as Katherine Johnson, to maintain my faith in us.

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