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NASA

Katherine Johnson: NASA's Pioneering Female Physicist (thenewstack.io) 133

destinyland writes: Tuesday's State of the Union address included a shout-out to Katherine Johnson, the pioneering African American mathematician and physicist who calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepherd's 1961 space trip. "Her reputation was so strong that John Glenn asked her to recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth," notes one technology reporter. NASA policy at the time was to not acknowledge the female contributors to scientific papers, though "She literally wrote the textbook on rocket science," according to one NASA official, noting that her impact literally reaches all the way to the moon. At a ceremony in November, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 97-year-old pioneer continues to encourage young people to also pursue careers in technology, science, engineering and math.
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Katherine Johnson: NASA's Pioneering Female Physicist

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  • by l2718 ( 514756 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @09:23AM (#51321561)

    The article says "The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female Computers as formal co-authors". The blurb above replaces "Computers" with "contributors", painting a false and offensive picture.

    Today in many fields it is common to only include as authors of a paper those who have had creative scientific input. A common example is research assistants who collate data, or technical staff who build lab equipment, but the example of someone who did a numerical computation for the author is not uncommon. Most "computers" simply did the computations, which was certainly an important contribution to the research, but not necessarily the kind of contribution that makes one an author of a paper.

    • What about male computers? Why the need to specify gender, if the difference is not gender-related?
      • by l2718 ( 514756 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @09:33AM (#51321599)

        What about male computers?

        Because the computers were all female. There was rampant sexism at the time – in particular in that women could be computers but not research staff (with Ms. Johnson an apparent exception). But there are better ways of highlighting this sexism (of which Ms. Johnson was a victim) than by unreasonably rewriting quotes from the article

        • by Tx ( 96709 )

          It seems that quote may have been adapted from the Wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] on Katherine Johnson, which says "The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female contributors as formal co-authors [citation needed]", rather than from the article linked in the summary.

        • Standard conjugation of the Fifties: I program, you code, she keypunches.

    • by SirSlud ( 67381 )

      Offensive? I can't roll my eyes hard enough.

      • by l2718 ( 514756 )
        Sexism, both in the past and today, is a terrible thing. We are talking here about a trailblazing woman who was a victim of sexism. There is no need to rewrite quotes to make the point that she was a victim.
        • by SirSlud ( 67381 )

          The article uses the word computers. The summary uses the word contributor. The wikipedia article uses the word contributor. But it's not a quote, and here you are wringing your hands and feeling offended, which is baffling.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, what they often had were women who were brilliant mathematicians who never got any credit for doing the heavy lifting and actively participating in the process.

      They didn't "simply do the calculations", they did the highly advanced maths and got no credit for it.

      The practice was to take people who did as much, if not more, than the people who got the credit and leave them off it because they were women.

      Pretending like these women were the unskilled labor is the offensive part.

    • The article says "The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female Computers as formal co-authors". The blurb above replaces "Computers" with "contributors", painting a false and offensive picture.

      Sigh.

      The "computers" were, in fact, significant contributors who were, as a matter of policy, not listed as co-authors. Because they were female. (See PIckering's Harem [wikipedia.org]. )

      • not listed as co-authors. Because they were female.

        Or because they were computers?

        There weren't any male ones who might or might not have been credited, so...

    • The blurb above replaces "Computers" with "contributors", painting a false and offensive picture.

      No, you are painting a false picture. The word "computer" has changed meaning completely between then and now. Computer now means what then would have been refered to as an automatic digital computer. A computer then was a eprson who did arseloads of calculations.

      Which contribute to the paper.

      Calling them contributers is entirely reasonable due to them contributing all the calculations.

      Today in many fields it i

    • I believe the article should have said computors. A computor can have a specific gender.
  • Longevity pays off (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @09:27AM (#51321569) Journal
    Katherine Johnson seems like a genuine candidate for long overdue recognition.

    Good thing she lived to 97!

    • by arth1 ( 260657 )

      Good thing she lived to 97!

      For whom? What would have been worse if she only had lived to 87?

      • For whom? What would have been worse if she only had lived to 87?

        Congratulations, you just figured out the basis of the sarcasm. It's pretty pathetic that it's taken this long for society to recognize her contribution, specifically because it refused to recognize it earlier because of her gender.

  • Not an abberation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Theovon ( 109752 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @09:37AM (#51321615)

    If only we as a society can now stop thinking of these people as abberations just on the basis of gender and other genetic factors. Geniuses in general are rare, so if you’re looking for them, the last thing you want to do is summarily exclude any segment of any population, simply because YOU believe some of their characteristics correlate less with genius.

    I was reading a journal paper from the 1970’s or something that presented average IQs for different genetic groups. They found the average Asian IQ to be higher tna the average Caucasian IQ, which was higher than the average African IQ. However, in every case, the standard deviation was very high. This guarantees that geniuses would be found in large populations. (Of course, none of this accounts for aspects of intelligence not considered by IQ, like social ability.)

    Of course, racism isn’t really about IQ. IQ is sometimes used as an *excuse* for racism, but if that were not a factor, racists would find another excuse. Bigotry in general is about deciding that someone is incompetent or inferior on the basis of superficial traits. It becomes *criminal* when you actively interfere with someone’s life on the basis of a prejudgement like this.

    I’m hoping that highlighting women and other marginalized groups and their contributions to science and society as a whole will gradually enlighten the human race.

    • (Of course, none of this accounts for aspects of intelligence not considered by IQ, like social ability.)

      And despite a post that sounds pretty good, you fall right into the same trap.

      Exactly what is "social ability" as defined by race?

      And how does any of this stuff apply to the individual? I'd suggest a better approach is noting that taking a very inexact system like measuring IQ, then applying exacting statistics to it, and using it as an approach to an entire race is proof of the applier's stupidity, and disproves the theory.

      It puts 'em into a circular logic loop, and they freak out like a TV show's

    • by Nemyst ( 1383049 )
      The biggest problem with IQ is that its causal relationship is almost always incorrect. People take lower average IQ as to mean that the social group exhibiting said lower IQ is inherently less intelligent and that that's why they're poorer/less educated/less well-off, but in reality it's the other way around: being poorer and having less access to means of bettering yourself directly harms your ability to develop intellectually.

      Then there's also the fact that IQ is regularly redefined so that the average
    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      That research has been widely debunked. The basic problem is that the IQ test is a really poor way to measure intelligence. People from certain cultures tend to do better than others (regardless of genetics), and scores can be improved through practice so favours educational systems that teach the skills it measures.

      For example, the well documented Flynn Effect [wikipedia.org] shows that IQs have been steadily rising in western societies since the introduction of the test. Based on modern test scoring, the average IQ in th

    • Of course, none of this accounts for aspects of intelligence not considered by IQ, like social ability.

      Please don't give credence to IQ with such statements. Forget social intelligence. I know one award winning physicist who scored mid 90s on IQ tests, because IQ tests for shallow speed. The physicist in question was a slow, but very deep thinker. He'd generally get stuck thinking in detail about the questions and perform very poorly (or find things that wqere technically ambiguous if you had a perverse way

      • by Theovon ( 109752 )

        You make a really good point. During interviews, I don’t have the same quick response to some things that companies like Google would expect. However, give me some time, and I’ll come up with better answers than other people would because they would just move on, while I would chew on it and come up with something more comprehensive.

  • Disagree (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @09:48AM (#51321655)
    Certainly some of the claims of unfair treatment of women is dubious, especially the "I'm not included socially" or "they act too friendly and familiar" sort. However this is genuinely shocking:

    NASA policy at the time was to not acknowledge the female contributors to scientific papers, though "She literally wrote the textbook on rocket science,"

    We should acknowledge it as such and not put it down to some SWJ agenda

    • I would like to see the citation for this policy.

    • Re:Disagree (Score:5, Informative)

      by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @10:17AM (#51321781) Homepage

      No kidding, from the Gutenberg link:

      "...in June 1953, Katherine was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center... At first she worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual `[computers] who wore [skirts].' Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine's knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that,'they forgot to return me to the pool.' While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged."

      This isn't some flunky doing the boring calculations beneath the principal researchers ... this is someone actively contributing to the outcomes, but who got ignored when it came time for credit.

      She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer's numbers. Ms. Johnson later worked directly with real computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.

      This is a woman who deserves a ton of credit for actually being a significant part of history at NASA. She sure as hell wasn't just sitting around adding up a few thing here and there.

      • She co-authored 26 papers and was listed as an author in a NASA peer-reviewed report. I know the summary makes it sound like she didn't get any credit for her work at the time, but actually following and reading the gutenberg link provided makes the point she was more knowledgeable than the rest because she was credited when normally someone who was just a "computer" wouldn't have been, implying she was more than just another "computer".

        The whole "NASA policy" part of the summary is clearly wrong with regar

        • That's exactly what I expected. I too tire of this inflammatory bullshit, but what really pisses me off is that people eat it up like a competitive eater at a Chinese buffet. They believe it because it "feels" right since they have been bombarded by feminist propaganda since birth.
  • Literally (Score:4, Insightful)

    by 110010001000 ( 697113 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @10:07AM (#51321729) Homepage Journal
    "She literally wrote the textbook on rocket science," Someone doesn't know what literally means.
    • That would be you.
      According to the dictionary the word "literally" has two meanings - and you only know the first one.

      Webster's dictionary and the OED both include the second one - which is correct here. Even dictionary.com lists it as option 4 - with a note that this can be confusing since this meaning is very nearly the opposite of the first meaning, but this meaning has been common throughout the English speaking world since at least the early 19th century.
      In dictionary.com it is listed as:
      "in effect; in

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        "in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually:"

        So what you are saying is that virtual reality and literal reality are the same thing now. For a certain percentage of the population, that might actually be true.

      • Dictionaries memorialize common usage as an aid to readers. They offer no opinion on the correctness of word choices.

        The inverse meaning of literally is common, but incorrect. Note that I am not normally in the prescriptive camp of linguistics. I do not consider formations that merely make one sound like an idiot to be incorrect, but I do consider formations that lose information to be incorrect.

        Consider the present case. "wrote the book" is an expression that can mean either "wrote the book" or "knows

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          "wrote the book" is an expression that can mean either "wrote the book" or "knows enough that he could write a book".

          The second meaning doesn't seem to be common. "Wrote the book" is a simple statement of fact, referring to the person having written the standard (or at least a well respected) book on the subject.

          This is why we need language to be clear. When making what appears to be a factual, literal statement there isn't room for this kind of ambiguity. That's why I too reject any meaning of "literally" that isn't absolute, because the only way to infer what the speaker means is by evaluating the likelihood of their cl

      • Although those definitions are wrong, she didn't even virtually write the book on rocket science. Because there is no book on rocket science. Many people "wrote the book" on rocket science, including the guys who actually, um, built rockets.
        • There most def were textbooks on rocket science, which was a very new thing in the 60s, as the team at NASA (which included Ms. Johnson) were making it up as they went along. Textbooks were needed to teach young scientists so NASA could recruit them. And, you know, to add to the general store of knowledge. Ah, youth.
        • Well, of course I will take the utterly unsubstantiated opinion of a random person on the internet over the shared conclusion of three distinct teams of lexicographers at three separate dictionaries including the one published by the world's most prestigious university and held as the canonical record of the English language in determining which meanings of a word is "wrong". That wouldn't be stupid of me at all.

    • She authored the textbooks that were used in universities across the country. These books were written as they went, because the things in the textbooks had never been done before. She wrote them. As in, put pen to paper and wrote the books used in classrooms. Thus, she literally wrote the textbooks on rocket science. And the quote in the article is from the Deputy Director of NASA, who, methinks, understands the definition better than yourself.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @10:26AM (#51321833) Journal
    NASA officially had a policy not to list female contributors to papers as co-authors? Wow! That was simply awful. How did they even justify such an unscientific discriminatory policy? Were there any male scientists who objected to it? Did any female scientist raise objections? Is it possible to dig through old NASA records to find such contributions?

    BTW it should be possible to find it in the archives. NASA records and documents everything. Richard Feynman suggested something trivial. He noticed they were marking the bolts at 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock positions to help align solid booster rocket section assembly. He suggesting marking the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock bolts in addition to help them better. NASA studied the suggestion for two years and rejected it because the documentation update would be prohibitive. That is the level of documentation they maintain. I am sure it would be possible to find the long forgotten women contributors and right the wrong.

    We award Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously after several decades. We restored Robert E Lee's citizenship decades after he died. [burnpit.us] Gen Lee's application for citizenship with formal sworn renunciation of his allegiance to Confederacy was taken home as a personal souvenir by the Secretary of State and was found in attic after several decades.

    If restoring that traitor's citizenship status after a century is deemed to be important, giving credit to women scientists for their contribution to NASA is important too. We can and we should find the historical wrong and right it.

    • How did they even justify such an unscientific discriminatory policy?

      Here's how:

      https://www.nasa.gov/sites/def... [nasa.gov]

      It's called "white male privilege", and it takes a damn long time to change:

      http://edyoucatives.com/wp-con... [edyoucatives.com]

    • NASA officially had a policy not to list female contributors to papers as co-authors?

      Nope. In fact, if you read the gutenberg link in the summary, it clearly states that she was listed as a co-author. i.e.:

      NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” 1960. Authors: T.H. Skopinski, Katherine G. Johnson

      The link says her contributions were greater than the mere "computers" and proves it by stating she co-authored 26 papers, so

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        The point they were trying (and failing) to make was that at the time women were often relegated to the role of computer, with Ms. Johnson being one of the rare exceptions who managed to rise above that level. So the sexism was a glass ceiling, and the fact that it meant few women had their names on papers was really just a side-effect of that.

        It's a bit like how some people argue there is no wage gap because different lifestyles/jobs etc, ignoring the fact that those things are often the product of biases

        • It's a bit like how some people argue there is no wage gap because different lifestyles/jobs etc, ignoring the fact that those things are often the product of biases against women.

          I take it then that you've known a lot of men that were pregnant, or left the workforce because they wanted to spend time with their children while they were young?

          How many women players are on your favorite professional football team? What is the league average? Why do you think those numbers are the way they are? Is it simple bias?

          We are often told by feminist advocates that women bring different perspectives to a workplace. If that is true, do you think that different perspective might lead to differe

          • I take it then that you've known a lot of men that were pregnant, or left the workforce because they wanted to spend time with their children while they were young?

            Try googling for things related to "men afriad to take paternity leave". Turns out lots of men want to, but don't feel they can.

            In other news sexism hurts men too. And if you catually care about men you should want to rid the world of it.

            How many women players are on your favorite professional football team?

            Not that I follow football, but it's no

        • It's a bit like how some people argue there is no wage gap because different lifestyles/jobs etc, ignoring the fact that those things are often the product of biases against women.

          I am getting really tired of this bullshit claim. The "wage gap" exists only because of women's choices. Men are much more willing to take jobs which are more dangerous, stressful, and/or keep you away from home more. Incidentally those jobs pay more because they have very serious trade-offs. These are trade-offs which the va

  • Vera Rubin [wikipedia.org], who did a lot of the early research on dark matter, was not allowed to use the telescope at Caltech specifically because of her gender (eventually the policy did change). Also prevented from enrolling in Princeton's graduate astronomy program because women were not allowed until 1975.

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