back to article RIP Katherine Johnson: The extraordinary NASA mathematician astronauts trusted over computers

Katherine Johnson, the pioneering African-American mathematician whose calculations ensured NASA's astronauts safely set foot on the Moon in 1969, died today. She was 101. Born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, she was an exceptionally precocious child, and was allowed to skip several grades ahead in school. Mentored by …

  1. cb7 Bronze badge

    What an amazing woman

    RIP Katherine Johnson

  2. Cederic Silver badge

    this is a role model

    Someone that faced genuine sexism and racism in all aspects of her life, let alone the workplace, and still made a difference. Respect is due.

    1. Richard Crossley
      Go

      Re: this is a role model

      ... single mother as well, 3 children and the other challenges. What a contribution.

      What a role model

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: this is a role model

        In today's UK she'd be waiting 6 weeks on the street for her Universal Credit, while the Mail fulminated about black people not contributing to society.

        1. jospanner Bronze badge

          Re: this is a role model

          If she took time for family after helping get people on the moon she'd be deemed 'economically inactive' or some bs.

          1. willjd

            Re: this is a role model

            Indeed .... that was my thought after reading that passage. I recently talked to an HR representative who questioned why I took a year off after retiring from HP after 30 years. Her face screwed up and she said "Gaps indicate a problem...."

  3. Sean o' bhaile na gleann

    RIP indeed..

    101 years is a helluva innings.

    Coincidentally, I sat and watched Hidden Figures only yesterday - a cracking film.

    I only noticed two anachronisms - I dare say others will have noticed more.

    1. The 7090 computer is described as a 'mainframe' - the term hadn't been invented back then. There weren't any 'minis' or 'micros' to compare against.

    2.There's a sequence at about the 55-minute mark where two Redstones blow up, followed by another explosion... which I'm pretty sure is the Challenger disaster. There's just no mistaking the shape and colour of that fireball hurtling through the sky.

    1. Andrew Commons

      Re: 7090

      The DEC PDP 1 and the IBM 7090 were both rolled out in December 1959. So while the term may not have been invented comparisons were possible.

    2. tfb Silver badge
      Boffin

      The term 'mainframe' dates back a long way: telephone exchanges had 'mainframes' in 1918 for instance.

      It probably didn't mean quite what it does now in the late 1950s, but it was a term that was in use then. I suspect it might have been more common to talk about the 'computer mainframe' (or mainframes) (ie the cabinet or cabinets with the logic and fast memory perhaps) rather than 'mainframe computer' meaning 'something big enough to have a main frame').

      You're probably right that people would not have referred to the thing as a 'mainframe' but the term did exist.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Yes.

        The term distinguished the big bit that did the thinking from the smaller boxes that did the remembering.

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      101 years is a helluva innings.

      Yes, and it's lovely that she lived long enough to receive the Medal of Freedom during her lifetime, and see her contributions properly acknowledged. Posthumous recognition would have been better than nothing, but it's far better to show the recipient our appreciation.

  4. Bubba Von Braun

    An amazing lady

    An inspiration to everyone. Never truer a term is used that we stand on the shoulders of those who come before. In Mrs. Johnson's and those who served NACA and then NASA they have laid a foundation in mathematics and computing still in use today.

    It is a sad day. I think my next rocket will be named after her.

    BvB

  5. tygrus.au

    data processing systems not mainframes

    Firstly, I'd like to send my condolence to the Johnson family. Katherine's achievements should never be forgotten by us.

    I think they were called "data processing systems" not mainframes when the 7090 was released and earlier. The systems were made of cabinets and frames holding modules. Telephone system also had equipment mounted in frames so the phrase "main frame" was in prior use, but not the modern definition applied to computers after the mid-1960's. My mother worked in a data processing department as a computer operator in the 1960's and early 70's of MLC insurance company in Australia.

    Quoted from an answer by "mgkrebbs":

    "The term became more widely adopted, in particular for the large central computer used by a company as distinguished from smaller computers which began to appear in the 1960s. It is not terribly surprising that the earliest source quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary for mainframe is a 1964 glossary from Honeywell, then a producer (among other things) of smaller computers and soon minicomputers."

    https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/28290/origin-of-the-word-mainframe

  6. ratfox Silver badge

    Infinite respect

    There are some people for whom the sky is not a limit.

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Infinite respect

      RIP, Ms. Johnson. You are, and will continue to be, an inspiration to so many.

      "They wouldn't have gotten there without her to show them the way."

  7. Winkypop Silver badge

    Exceptional skills

    She made a significant contribution to manned space flight.

    An inspiration.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Exceptional skills

      And also womanned space flight ;-)

      1. ds6

        Re: Exceptional skills

        Take my upvote you rat bastard.

  8. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge

    She reached for the stars ... and is now among them.

    RIP.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Perhaps we can expect them to behave properly now and not have to mess with dark matter to get the maths right.

  9. Stuart Moore

    Amazing woman

    If you haven't seen Hidden Figures, watch it - it's a very watchable technical film.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Amazing woman

      My wife is a real technophobe, and when I suggested that we watch Hidden Figures one evening, and I described it as a film about women involved in the background of the US space program, she heard "space program" and "mathematicians" and said that she didn't want to watch it.

      We didn't find anything else she wanted, so I put it on anyway, and by about a quarter of the way through, she had changed her mind, and by the end, she was completely engrossed. So even if you don't think that you want to watch a film about the space program, watch this one. I promise it is worth seeing.

      There was some artistic license apparently, but I think it was a fitting tribute to these women of colour who had everything stacked against them, and still managed to make a difference.

    2. swm Silver badge

      Re: Amazing woman

      Also read the book.

  10. Roger Greenwood

    ICYMI (from twitter):-

    You know she was a proper mathemetician when she lived to 101 and died in her prime.

    RIP and thank you.

  11. Neal L

    Wow, what a true hero and an inspiration.

    I think I'll have to go rent Hidden Figures now. As a father of two daughters I like this sort of inspiration.

  12. BebopWeBop Silver badge
    Holmes

    It still boggles that NASA were tunning a 'blacks only' section - and I would be prepared to bet that =this was not a piece of positive discrimination!

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      NA{CS}A was actually ahead of the times.

      Remember two things about the "blacks only" section:

      1. They had skilled technical jobs (as opposed to menial labor)

      2. It was the South in the 50s and 60s.

      Doesn't make it right, but perhaps they were pushing the envelope a bit. Many small changes can be just as powerful as one big one, and sometimes an awful lot easier to get through.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I once worked briefly with a white South African who was running what was almost a covert "educate the blacks" operation in a factory in Germiston. He was quietly turning semi-skilled jobs into skilled ones and nobody objected because output and quality were going up. The "inspection department" was turning into the "quality management" department.

    2. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Discrimination was not even trumped by the exigencies of war. As well as having a segregated army in WW II, the Pentagon, which was built during the war at great trouble and expense was nevertheless overprovisioned with toilets and canteens to permit the racial segregation required by the law of Virginia.

      You would hope that organisations based on science and technology would have a better record, but it's unfortunately not the case.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        A former friend, now dead, and his company in Italy in WW2 had to be kept away from American units so they wouldn't find out that a white British company was being run by a half West Indian major, in case it provoked riots.

        It isn't entirely about the organisation and what it wants, but the need to be able to run the organisation despite the racist workforce. There are more of them than there are management.

      2. hitmouse

        Much like the "don't ask don't tell" policy forced military intelligence to get rid of most of its Arabic translators and many other gifted personnel.

      3. werdsmith Silver badge

        This video that was played to US GIs on their voyage to UK in WW2.

        https://youtu.be/ltVtnCzg9xw

        Around 25 minutes to see how they regarded race matters.

        "you mean we have to get over our prejudices". They had to warn the GIs that English women would happily talk to black people and invite them for tea.

        Complete with Bob Hope cameo.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Growing up in the 70s, ie old enough to be watching "adult" TV instead of just kids shows, I was always impressed that US TV shows always seemed to shoe black people in positions of power, doctors, lawyers, judges etc, something I didn't really see in British TV shows, and how advanced the US must be in equality. Looking back now, how little I knew! (and yes, I'm aware of the vast disparity across various US states, but even so, was quite shocked to learn how recent actual and legal discrimination was.

      4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "the racial segregation required by the law of Virginia."

        And there's (was) the problem. You can be as progressive as you like, but the law trumps your ambitions. Politicians are usually very slow with things like this.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          When you are black and living in a white world you just deal with it - it's not that much different than having to walk to work on a rainy day, bitching about the rain doesn't make you any dryer or happier. Sure the rain sucks but standing there complaining doesn't help.

  13. elenmirie

    A real life version

    A real life version of last year's Hugo Award winner. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33080122-the-calculating-stars

    RIP Katherine Johnson

  14. khjohansen

    "Get the girl.."

    - She was in her forties at the time! :/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Get the girl.."

      Times have changed. But she lived to 101 so how old did she actually look at the time?

      One of my kids had the following conversation with a staff member on the first day at a new school:

      "Why aren't you in school uniform?"

      "Because I'm the new head of Maths."

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Amazing achievements and the film was a great watch - the trouble with hollywood is they are prone to completely fictionalising the factual that you can never be sure how closely it relates to true life. Great to see most of it was true.

    Although in the article

    "...she was unable to find a job in academia during a time when African Americans were heavily discriminated against. Instead, she became a school teacher."

    Doesn't seem to make sense unless "academia" no longer includes schools?

    1. baud Bronze badge

      The term academia is usually used for higher education, whereas school is usually used for primary and secondary education

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Academia means both. Therefore the sentence doesn't make sense. If you work in academia you may be more likely to mean HE, but the job category of academia encompasses schools as well.

        1. baud Bronze badge

          I used the definition at wiktionary, you're free to disagree with it, but it's the most common meaning of the word.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Wiktionary ... Ah yes, the dictionary created by random internet people.

            From Merriam-webster:

            https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/academia

            "the life, community, or world of teachers, schools, and education"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I have always assumed that "academia" means a research or librarian related role in addition to any teaching duties.

  16. TonyJ Silver badge

    RIP

    Funnily enough I saw the film for the first time just a couple of weeks ago and I can echo others when I say it is a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

    The character played by Kevin Costner was, according to something I saw on their website, an amalgamation of people, who at the time helped to ensure that both the space programme was a success and racial and sexual equality was being undertaken.

    And although it feels like we've come so far in the last 50 or so years, one look at the wolrd around us and it feels precariously like we could slip so easily backwards if we're not careful.

    Thart said, what an incredible person and what truly momentous achievements. Truly, the shoulders of giants.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: RIP

      T S Eliot described the 1930s as "an age that advances progressively backwards". I am beginning to think we are living through 1930s Mk. II.

  17. Paddy

    Thanks Katyanna

    A great obituary. I posted a link on Reddit r/programming. Those 1k+up votes are for your subject and also for your communication abilities.

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