Ep. 561: Remembering Katherine Johnson

We lost a bright star here on planet Earth last week. NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101, after an incredible career of helping humans land on the Moon. If you saw the movie Hidden Figures, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

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Fraser Cain:                 Astronomy Cast, Episode 561, Remembering Katherine Jones. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me today, as always, is Pamela Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of Cosmo Quest. Pamela, how are you doing?

Pamela Gay:                I’m doing well. How are you doing today, Fraser?

Fraser Cain:                 Good. This, I guess, is not a bonus episode – actually, this is another bonus episode of Astronomy Cast. In the alternate universe, I would still be traveling to Japan right now, but thanks to the coronavirus I am not. And so, my loss, your gain. Enjoy this bonus episode of Astronomy Cast. And really, for the next few months, nobody’s going nowhere.

Pamela Gay:                No.

Fraser Cain:                 And so, we will just stay right where we are, tethered to our computers, making content for your entertainment because it just – it beats the alternative –

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 – of wandering out into this terrifying virus filled planet.

Pamela Gay:                So, the moral of the story is, folks, find your squad on the internet, hang out, talk science.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                Play video games. Don’t leave your house, and if you do, wash your hands.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. And if we do end up – if things get even more serious.

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 Which it – it’s looking like in the U.S., like it looks like we’ve got things pretty well controlled in Canada.

Pamela Gay:                We do not.

Fraser Cain:                 We have a lot –

Pamela Gay:                We’re all going to die.

Fraser Cain:                 – of test kits available – yeah, I don’t know if you’ve heard. There’s more testing done just in our province, just in British Columbia, than your entire country, in all of the U.S.

Pamela Gay:                I am not leaving my house.

Fraser Cain:                 I know. Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                As an immunocompromised individual –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. I know.

Pamela Gay:                – who already has lung damage, I am not leaving my house.

Fraser Cain:                 No.

Pamela Gay:                You cannot make me.

Fraser Cain:                 Nope.

Pamela Gay:                Well, I’m gonna garden. I’m not gonna leave my yard.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                I won’t get vitamin D deficiency.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                We will have fresh grown tomatoes.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. So, I’m currently on the wander around my city, not feel super concerned about it because it looks like right now we know very – very well aware the disease is in Canada, but I am practicing washing my hands on a more regular basis and not touching my face, but it’s super hard. So, but for all of the people who are going through this right now, I mean, especially the people in Italy, the people in Iran –

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – the people in China, Japan.

Pamela Gay:                Seattle.

Fraser Cain:                 Seattle, Korea – this is – this is growing and definitely a big concern, and so we are thinking about you. And I hope – here’s hoping that as a – just as an entire world we really learn to come together and minimize the impact that this has and try to minimize the number of deaths.

Pamela Gay:                And – and as we all hide in our homes –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                – and our yards, this is where the Weekly Space Hangout and the Cosmo Quest Discord are your places to just come and well –

Fraser Cain:                 Hang out with your peeps.

Pamela Gay:                Yeah. Come play Ticket to Ride and –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                – trash talk with us. It’s fun.

Fraser Cain:                 So, we lost a bright star here on Planet Earth last week, NASA mathematician, Katherine Johnson, passed away at the age of 101, after an incredible career of helping humans land on the moon. If you saw the movie Hidden Figures, you’ll know who I’m talking about. So, it’s been about a year since I saw Hidden Figures. So, it’s not super in my brain. Did you re-review it in preparation or have you just been –

Pamela Gay:                So –

Fraser Cain:                 – diving into biographies?

Pamela Gay:                I have to admit, my inner 12-year-old was told so many times, you’ve got to go watch Hidden Figures –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                – that I never watched the movie or read the book.

Fraser Cain:                 What?

Pamela Gay:                So.

Fraser Cain:                 Oh, my god.

Pamela Gay:                My inner 12-year-old is sometimes an idiot.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                But I have gone and read a bunch of other biographies.

Fraser Cain:                 Okay. Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                And in preparation for this show, I actually discovered an error on one of NASA’s biographies –

Fraser Cain:                 Oh, good.

Pamela Gay:                – that has me somewhat annoyed.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                But –

Fraser Cain:                 So, before we get into this week’s episode, I wanna provide a bit of a disclaimer for me.

Pamela Gay:                Okay.

Fraser Cain:                 Which is that I think – although, I do sound like an American, I’m not an American. I’m a Canadian. And so, we don’t – I don’t have the same kind of, like, institutionalized racism towards African Americans in my childhood, in my day to day growing up in – in our society in – on the west coast of Canada. In the same way, like if you didn’t grow up in Australia, you don’t necessarily have the same institutionalized racism towards aboriginal Australians. And if you don’t – like, what we have here in Canada is institutionalized racism towards – to First Nations people.

Pamela Gay:                Right.

Fraser Cain:                 And that’s the term that we use in Canada. And very specifically for me, my sister is First Nations. So, I grew up very closely watching what impact it had on her as a child, as a teenager growing up. And so, there is this – I know there is this just cultural scar that a lot of people feel on all sides of this as growing up as an American. And so, I just wanna analogize in advance that I didn’t grow up this way.

And so, I will stumble around in this topic because I just – this is not something that I felt firsthand. It’s only secondhand watching media, seeing – I watched tons of movies. I understand, and you feel it a bit when you’re traveling around in the United States, but it is not my personal experience. So, I just wanna kind of apologize in advance if I don’t use the correct terminology or I just don’t – I just don’t have that personal experience. All right. Let’s get on with it.

Pamela Gay:                And –

Fraser Cain:                 So, who was Katherine Johnson?

Pamela Gay:                So, I just wanna follow up and say I’m a white lady. I’m gonna make mistakes, too.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                I have no excuse.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah, yeah.

Pamela Gay:                I’m learning.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                So –

Fraser Cain:                 But you have a little bit of an insight to the –

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 Your husband is like – I am interchangeable with your husband in terms of just my cultural upbringing. And so, you probably have just watched him interact with America and just – and just see a certain amount of cluelessness that – as he travels around inside that country that – he’s building it, I’m sure. He’s building, he’s getting clues.

Pamela Gay:                Well –

Fraser Cain:                 But he just is clueless. Anyway. But I don’t wanna take away from – I don’t wanna take away from the topic. So, let’s dig into Katherine Johnson, and people can inform me about my cluelessness later on. Who was she?

Pamela Gay:                All right. So, Katherine Johnson was the youngest of a whole large, happy family, growing up in southern America in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. She had three older siblings and her family – her mom was a school teacher, her dad had a variety of different jobs over his lifetime. And as they watched their youngest child grow up, they realize, as so many parents end up realizing, oh, wow, our kid – our kid – like all kids are smart. This one’s – wow, we need to do something.

And they actually shifted their entire lives to make sure that their youngest daughter could get an education that she couldn’t have gotten at home. Born in 1918, she actually faced, well, racism her entire life. Where she grew up, they only educated people of color through eighth grade. Beyond eighth grade, you couldn’t get an education at all.

                                    So, her family looked around and discovered that the historically black college, the West Virginia University, it – West Virginia State College rather – sorry, I renamed it. They found that West Virginia State College had a high school for black children. And when their daughter was 13, they decided to uproot their family from White Sulfur Springs and spend the school year in Institute, where the university was, and then spend their summers back in White Sulfur Springs.

Fraser Cain:                 Wow.

Pamela Gay:                And that’s just amazing. And this is the kind of thing that we’re used to hearing about with “Oh, we discovered our child was this amazing ice skater, this amazing gymnast, and we moved to where they could get proper training.” Well, in this case, they discovered their child was a mathematical genius. And they did that same thing that we’re so used to hearing about with athletes children. Now, she finished high school extraordinarily young. She graduated high school at 14 and promptly – well, when you do high school at a historically black college, you have the opportunity to attend it.

                                    And she graduated high school at age 18. Now, unfortunately, when you’re a woman and it’s the 1930s, you don’t have a lot of career options. And when you’re a black woman, you have even less. So, she did the one thing that would let her keep doing math at that time, and she became a school teacher. And for a lot of years, that’s what she did. But luckily integration did start in her lifetime. And when they went to finally desegregate the university of West Virginia, and this is the name that I was referring to earlier, when they finally went to integrate it in 1938, she was one of three students that West Virginia State College, the historically black school, put forward as these are the people you should use to integrate your graduate college.

                                    And this arose due to legislation that said, “Well, if you offer programs for white students, you have to offer them in the state for black students.” So, in 1938, she along with two black gentlemen that had also gone to the same school she did, they entered the graduate program for mathematics. Now, as often happens to women, she became pregnant and couldn’t finish her graduate degree. That just wasn’t a thing in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s still not really a thing in a lot of places.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                So, she – she and her husband settled down. They had three children. And she focused on them, eventually returning to the workforce as, again, so many women do, continuing to be a teacher. But in the 1950s, when she was 35 years old – so graduated university at 18. Now at 35, after raising three kids, after working as a school teacher, one of her family members had read about an opportunity at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

Fraser Cain:                 NACA.

Pamela Gay:                They were hiring. Yeah, NACA.

Fraser Cain:                 Is it NASA, NACA?

Pamela Gay:                It was NACA.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                Back in the beginning, it was NACA. So, this was 1952. This is before NASA is a thing, and they were hiring out at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hamilton, Virginia. So, Virginia, born and raised, stayed there through her life. They were hiring mathematicians and they were hiring colored people. That was the language of the time. And she applied. And in reading the things that she said about that time, she earned my respect because she took the job, knowing full well, that she was gonna get put in a room that said “Colored People” on the door, that she was gonna be just another female computer, because back then math was something that “those women will go do.” I have no clue –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                – where the idea that women are bad at math came into the zeitgeist.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                But she took the job because it let her do math. And she’d long ago settled on wanting research mathematics to be her career. And she wrote over and over that, sure, there was racism, sure, there were discrimination because of gender, which means she was facing both, but she didn’t see it because she did the math.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Right. But, I mean, and this, as you said, right, was a big thing back in the – back in the day, the term “computer,” we use that now for the – a piece of silicon and plastic and metal.

Pamela Gay:                Right.

Fraser Cain:                 That goes beep-boop on our desk, but a long time ago, computers were people.

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 Mostly women –

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 – who just crunched really complicated mathematics that were then used for various practical purposes like dropping bombs or – or figuring out rocket trajectories.

Pamela Gay:                And, if you think about it –

Fraser Cain:                 Which is just another version of bombs. I guess there’s bombs that you drop and bombs that you hurl sideways. Various ways to throw bombs at other people. Women did the math.

Pamela Gay:                It’s true. They did other things as well. There was the Harvard College university – or sorry, Harvard College Observatory pool of women computers that did astrophysical calculations. But as she put it, she was a computer who wore skirts. And “computer” means someone who computes. So, the word is – just we’ve lost it over time. A miller is someone who mills.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                A computer is someone who computes.

Fraser Cain:                 A robber is someone who robs.

Pamela Gay:                Is someone who robs.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                And initially she was put in this pool of women at NACA who were doing analytical geometry tasks and other basic computer tasks, but everything got to change for Katherine when she was given on loan to one of the early aeronautical groups. And she was so good at analytic geometry that they forgot to return her to the pool of women that she had been working in. And so, she got to in some ways escape the “Here, just mindlessly do all of these calculations” drudgery. And instead, got to be part of that group of humans who were figuring out the new space race, who were figuring out, “Well, what is the launch window for the Gemini missions, to get them in an orbit that will get them back home where and when we want? What are the” –

                                    Well, one of my favorite things that she did was – getting to the moon is actually far easier than getting back. And she’s the one who figured out exactly how to do the reentry so that they would end up near the ship that was going to pick them up because our world is big. You need to get the return down right.

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Yeah, absolutely. There’s a great quote – and I’m probably sort of saying it a little wrong, but the gist being that she worked on Alan Shepard’s first flight, made the calculations to figure out what his trajectory was going to be, and then she was the backup for the actual, like, silicon computer that was used to calculate – or I guess it was vacuum tubes –

Pamela Gay:                It was vacuum tube, yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – back then. Yeah. The vacuum tube computer that did the calculations for John Glenn’s trajectory. And when asked – when John Glenn was asked if he felt okay doing this trip, he specifically said, “If Katherine Johnson is okay with the math, then I’m good to go.”

Pamela Gay:                Well, it was more than that. He basically said, “She needs to do the math.”

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Yes. Yeah. But if – “So, if she confirms that the computer is right, then I’m good to fly, but not until she is certain.”

Pamela Gay:                And in describing her own role in a lot of this, she was always quick to say that she basically barged into each situation she knew she belonged in when people were trying to keep her out. One of my favorite examples of this is she’s the first woman to have her name as an author on a NASA technical report. Up until then, they’d had women who worked on the content in the reports, but it was always the lead man who had their name as the author. Well, there is a researcher who she had been working with. Ted Skopinski, and he wanted to transfer from Langley to Houston. And the people above him were like, “We need you to finish this report.”

                                    And he eventually was like, “Just have Katherine do it. I’m out of here.” It was a little fancier than that, but that was what it boiled down to, is Ted Skopinski said, “Katherine’s been doing all the work. Have her finish it.” And then she put her name on the report. And so, this is essentially how she broke one barrier down. And it was over and over her saying, “I need to be in this room, I did this work, I did this.” And asserting herself. And this is where I often think that when she said that she didn’t see the gender barriers and she didn’t see the racism, that the reality is she simply disregarded a lot of this and fought to be in the room.

Fraser Cain:                 Right.

Pamela Gay:                Probably went through a lot of her life thinking that it was her own forthrightness that was getting her into trouble, that it was her own assertiveness that was getting her into trouble. A lot of women feel this. And so, instead of seeing where it was a gender bias, instead of seeing where it was a color bias, what she saw was, “I’m assertive. I’m gonna tick people off, but I’m doing the right thing.”

Fraser Cain:                 Right. Well, I mean, and at the end of the day, like, no amount of racism or sexism will overcome the laws of nature of gravity, right? And so, if you’ve got the person who is absolutely the best at running these calculations, the most accurately, the most quickly with the most creativity, time and time again –

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – you’re gonna have to deal – you’re gonna be confronted by just this reality. If you want the best person for the job, you want the best person for the job. And so, you’re gonna have to accept it, which kind of sucks, because –

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 For the rest of us, we get this sort of assumption that we’re already the best for the job just based on the color and how we look. And so, we don’t have to necessarily climb those mountains every time we just wanna do anything. But –

Pamela Gay:                And one of the things that really disturbed me in preparing for this presentation or this podcast rather – she retired in 1986, so that’s a long life, a long career. And you can find online a list of all of her awards. And she won over and over the Langley Research Center Special Achievement Award: ’71, ’80. ’84, ’85, ’86. A lot of that was for her work with the space shuttle program. She became one of the people who really understood how the wire and metal computers worked and was able to transform the computations she knew how to do on paper into the software necessary to do them on the computers that weren’t human beings, the non-biological computers. And she got a NASA group achievement award during the Apollo program.

And then she retired in ’86 and she enjoyed all of her grandchildren. This is a woman who had a rich life. She used to joke about how important it was to work hard and play bridge during lunch. She was a member of the same church for 50 years. She had 11 grandchildren. And she enjoyed all of that living. She retired in ’86 and it was only then that people started to acknowledge everything that she had accomplished. Apparently, it took her absence for people to see her worth.

                                    In ’98 she got an honorary doctorate degree from SUNY. In ’99, West Virginia State College, that place where she did her high school and her bachelor’s degree, they declared her an outstanding alumnus. It was then in 2006 where the awards start to come in at a higher and higher pace as people start trying with urgency to determine, well, who are the forgotten heroes of STEM? And she was literally a hidden figure until people looked to shine a light on the women and people of color who faced so much integrating, well, in her case, mathematics.

Fraser Cain:                 In 2017, they named – NASA named one of – its supercomputer center after her.

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 The – so, there’s the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, which is I think at Langley? Yeah, at –

Pamela Gay:                It is at Langley.

Fraser Cain:                 – NASA’s Langley center. Yeah. Which is great. Huge building. Huge supercomputers inside and the ones made of metal and silicon.

Pamela Gay:                And the same day that they commemorated the building in her honor, Leland Melvin, who was the then NASA administrator, gave her what’s called the Snoopy achievement award. This is an award that astronauts get to pick who they want to give it to. And it’s given in the workplace among peers to people who have done remarkable things to improve the safety of traveling to space. And if anyone improved the safety, it’s the person who made the calculations to make sure they could get there and get home later.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah, yeah. Now, I mean, part of why we are doing this episode this week is she passed away last week.

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 At the age of 101.

Pamela Gay:                Yes.

Fraser Cain:                 Which is pretty amazing.

Pamela Gay:                And the last few years of her life, she proved over and over that while her body was frail, her mind was nimble. She gave some remarkable addresses; she received the Presidential Medal of Honor from Obama; she received the Congressional Medal of Honor. And she continued showing up and speaking, well, as an advocate for STEM, as an advocate for following your passion, as an advocate for, well, you can be a teacher, you can be a mom, and then you can get people back safely when their space craft goes boink, because she’s the one who figured out the trajectories to get Apollo 13 back.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                We need these role models. How many times do you and I get asked, “Can I get involved with NASA? I’m late in my life.”

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                She did it.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. And, I mean, just in anything, right? Which is like there is still – across the planet, there is still plenty of racism and sexism.

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 And all kinds of reasons – nationalism – all these reasons why people are disadvantaged to be able to achieve the same kinds of things in life. And yet, clearly, if you are willing to put in the work and you’re willing to never accept no for an answer, you can achieve great things and help culture catch up with what is right. And we all are always attracted to these situations. And it’s – can you promise that you’ll watch the movie? Because it’s great.

Pamela Gay:                I will. I will.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                And the one thing I just want to put in people’s minds is you don’t accomplish something by being nice all the time. And she over and over had to be a polarizing figure who ticked people off by sticking her nose in the room and saying, “I belong here.” And there are a whole lot of women out there who are told – and I’m one of them – “Well, you’re polarizing. Maybe we shouldn’t let you do this because there are people who don’t like you because you rub them the wrong way.”

                                    Well, if you’re always nice, you can’t open the door. But once that door is open, hopefully other people won’t have to fight so hard. Hopefully, well, it won’t take retirement for the next stunningly brilliant black woman to be seen for what she’s worth. Hopefully, they’ll recognize it while she’s there –

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                – making her breakthroughs.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. And I think that’s the hope, right, is that you get – is that what were impediments that need to be overcome, which do make you stronger, start turning into onramps.

Pamela Gay:                No. They don’t make you stronger.

Fraser Cain:                 People –

Pamela Gay:                They show you how strong you are and scar you deeply.

Fraser Cain:                 I think that a certain amount of challenge – the ideal amount of challenge – there’s an ideal amount of challenge that helps us grow and get better at what we do, and there are certain situations where sometimes we wouldn’t get where we would be without the challenge.

Pamela Gay:                That’s true.

Fraser Cain:                 But at the same time, you want it to be healthy, supportive challenges.

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 Right? I – on their birthday – on my son’s birthday, we went out and got him his driver’s license because I wanted him to begin driving, and he was initially resistant because it was gonna be hard and it was gonna be scary, but we did it and we got it and he did it. And now, he loves it, right? And so, you wanna be able to be encouraging but also challenging. And so, I think the more of this situation where you can have these positive supportive but challenges out there, the better we’ll all be as a society as opposed to us seeing sort of the survivorship bias of the people who were unwilling to give up no matter how awful life was to them –

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – to be able to accomplish great things. And Katherine Johnson is on the far side of that spectrum of being unwilling to quit no matter what was put in her way. And we who are fans of space are – and just all of the space flight that happened beyond that point is a tribute to what she was able to accomplish.

Pamela Gay:                Yeah. It’s my fervent hope that the challenges that force people forward are the ones of needing to innovate new technology, of needing to work in extreme environments and not the hostile workplace.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Right?

Pamela Gay:                But she did amazing things. And she made it possible for so many others to see themselves as the kind of person who does amazing things.

Fraser Cain:                 Yeah.

Pamela Gay:                So, we are grateful.

Fraser Cain:                 Thanks, Katherine. Thank you for everything you did and we’re – but, I mean, I would say we’re sorry to see you go, but 101, we should all be –

Pamela Gay:                Yeah.

Fraser Cain:                 – so lucky to live 101.

Pamela Gay:                Exactly.

Fraser Cain:                 Surrounded by friends and family and endless games of bridge and mathematics. Pamela, do you have some names for us this week?

Pamela Gay:                So, this month, we would like to thank the following people for everything they do to keep this show going through their patronage at patreon.com/astronomycast. I would like very much to thank Jordan Young, Burry Gowen, Frody Tenebaugh, Ramji Enamuthu, Andrew Poelstra, David Truog, Brian Cagle, TheGiantNothing, Laura Kittleson, Robert Palsma, Corey Davoll, Paul Jarman, Les Howard, Jos Cunningham, Emily Patterson, A Blip In The Universe, and The Infinitesimal Ripple In Space Time.

Fraser Cain:                 We’ll see you next week.

Female Speaker:          Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cain, and Pamela Pamela Gay. You can find shell notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can e-mail us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us @astronomycast, like us on Facebook, and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley, the outro music is by Travis Sorel, and the show was edited by Susie Murph.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 34 minutes

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