Thursday, February 27, 2020

Invisible numbers

First some numbers we've no intention of hiding! MIE passed 4 million views yesterday, and we're all enormously delighted. Over the ten years MIE has been going, we've had some writers stay from the beginning, some leave and others join, and, sadly, our founder Leighton Gage passed away.

Murder really is everywhere! Our current writers set, or have set, books in thirteen countries - Argentina, Botswana, England, France, Ghana, Greece, India, Japan, Kenya, Paraguay, Peru, Scotland and South Africa.

And if you add previous blogmates and guests to the list you get at least another twelve -
Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, Iceland, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Sweden, Thailand and the United States. We're keen to push that number up as we move to 5 million!

Join the celebration! Email by March 7 for a chance to win a signed first edition of either A CARRION DEATH or FACETS OF DEATH - your choice. Just put '4 million' in the subject line.

Michael - Thursday

Katherine Johnson at NASA
No one will be surprised to hear that women have been neglected in science and engineering since…whenever. Yet the worst offender is probably my own area, mathematics. I have a friend who used to run the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program (UMTYMP to its friends) for secondary school students, and one of the things that worried him was that far fewer girls than boys took the stringent tests and enrolled. So he started a special program to encourage girls, and soon the numbers started to rise, but they never came close to the 50% one would expect. He went to a lot of trouble to try to find out what was happening. There were many issues including that parental support was much stronger for the boys than for the girls. But one important reason was that girls didn’t want to excel at math because they felt that the boys wouldn’t think that cool. 

We’re talking here about really excelling – doing better than probably 95% of the other students. Only a handful of students would come to the program from each public school, and those learners would get advanced placement in college mathematics. The girls believed that the 95% of the boys they left behind would be uncomfortable with that. They were probably right. Much crucial talent in mathematics and the physical sciences was probably wasted as a result of these perceptions on both sides, to say nothing of the prejudice that would have hit the talented women if they had followed a career in mathematics or the physical sciences.

Receiving the medal
But not all that talent was wasted. On Monday, Katherine Johnson died at the age of 101. We probably only know about her at all because President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to her just five years ago, and a year later she was celebrated in a best-selling biography – Hidden Figures – and subsequently in a movie of the same title that picked up an Oscar nomination.

A scene from the movie.
It's pretty easy to get the point...
What Johnson did was to be a human computer for NASA during the space race to the moon in the sixties. We tend to forget just how short a time period computers have been around. We moan if our phones are slow to connect to the internet, or a piece of software has an irritating bug, forgetting how almost miraculous these devices actually are. When Johnson started at NASA in 1953 with a BSc from West Virginia State, she was literally a computer. That was her job title. She did calculations, and she was treated pretty much the same as we treat (machine) computers today – ignore them unless something goes wrong. She wasn’t alone. There was a whole department of computers – mostly women – who did calculations.

Johnson was different for two reasons. In the first place, she was black. That added another layer of discrimination on top of the female one. The director of the movie based on her life obviously saw this as a major theme – as it clearly was – and focused on it. Thus he had her running to and from the black toilet miles away, when, in fact, nothing like that actually happened. The second major difference was that she was a brilliant applied mathematician. We'll probably never know the true extent of her contributions, or those of the other computers, because they were included in reports without attribution. The computers weren’t just hidden, they were invisible.

Johnson’s work went far beyond computing, however. She developed sophisticated equations and was regarded not only as the best computer there, but as one of the best – probably the best – mathematician there. (No doubt the men didn’t think that was cool, and that certainly didn’t bother her one bit.)

A page of the paper
Johnson developed the equations to determine the timing and trajectories for launching a spacecraft into space, orbiting the moon, and bringing it back. That’s a challenging problem by any standards, and much more so when the only computers you have at your disposal are human ones. Half the problem is to design the equations in such a way that the calculations can be done manually, usually by using an efficiently converging iteration. Johnson did that. I took a look at the NASA report: “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” by Ted Skopinski and Katherine Johnson, and it’s very clever. It was the first NASA Langley research report ever co-authored by a women.

Even when the cumbersome mainframes took over the computer jobs, Johnson’s calculations were regarded as more elegant and more reliable. Her mathematics would still be used today for similar missions. She should probably have been running the whole show, but she played it all down with characteristic modesty, telling the Washington Post when the movie came out that “There was nothing to it – I was just doing my job.”

Rest in peace, Katherine.

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  1. Congratulations to you all! My blog just went over the one million views mark and I was dancing around the room. I know the work that goes into writing a blog - you are to be commended!

  2. Congratulations on the blog views, a real milestone.
    And thanks for the real scoop about Katherine Johnson, a genius.
    (And why do girls care what boys think when they excel at math? That is so outmoded.
    I loved geometry and trigometry, the latter because I had a great high school teacher, a woman.
    It's great that the film Hidden Figures told the truth about Katherine Johnson and her colleagues. It must have been so hard to deal with the racism and sexism, but they were so brilliant and determined.