Katherine Johnson: Yes, She Can.


One of the skills that Occupy Math’s editor had to teach him was to avoid burying the lead. It’s tempting to build up to a big reveal, but many potential readers don’t have the patience in this very modern age. So: the woman pictured is the quite awesome Katherine Johnson and that decorative looking object on the ribbon is the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Here is the citation for the award of the medal. According to President Barack Obama:

“With her razor-sharp mathematical mind, Katherine G. Johnson helped broaden the scope of space travel, charting new frontiers for humanity’s exploration of space, and creating new possibilities for all humankind. From sending the first American to space to the first moon landing, she played a critical role in many of NASA’s most important milestones. Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”

You can get a Medal of Freedom for being awesome at math in adverse circumstances.

Perusing the list of recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it appears that Katherine Johnson may be the sole mathematician to receive this honor. She is also among the very rare women in technical professions and African Americans in technical professions to win the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States of America. This speaks to the enormous barriers placed in front of women and people of color who might have innate talent in these areas.

Occupy Math has spoken out before about the waste and injustice of keeping women out of math. This injustice extends to under-representation on agenda setting panels. This waste and disrespect continue in spite of centuries of sterling examples like Florence Nightingale, Sonya Kovalevskaya, and Margaret Hamilton (another NASA scientist). Katherine Johnson is another among this distinguished list of women with extraordinary ability in math. A free and just society would permit all its citizens to discover and exercise their talents. Standing against this aspiration:

There is a pervasive and completely incorrect belief that women are bad at math.

This myth is so strong that women do better on math tests if they don’t admit they are women. Another example of this awful discrimination appears in that female coders get better average ratings on github than male coders as long as it’s not known they are female. So both a person’s measured skill and their perceived competence are damaged by admitting they are female. Katherine Johnson cleared the twin hurdles of being a woman and being an African American to reach a career in mathematics, at NASA, sending men into space. Her father’s faith in her, including a 120-mile drive to a place willing to educate her, was probably a key factor. Dr. Johnson graduated from high school at 14 and college at 18. She was one of those people with inborn talent that breaks barriers or dies trying.

A Vanity Fair article tells us that a book and movie about Dr. Johnson’s life, titled Hidden Figures, are coming out. This will help — the most effective way of opposing the myth that women, blacks, or other groups are somehow less able is to publicize the extremely able. Katherine Johnson made great contributions to the space program, to civil rights, and to women’s rights. The latter contributions involve visible existence while excellent, a difficult achievement in its own right.

There are a lot of brilliant women in the mathematical sciences.

Occupy Math is just back from Thailand and very pleased to be able to report that a paper by his student, Meghan Timmins, won the best paper award at the IEEE CIBCB conference. The paper was on creating contact networks that captured a particular type of epidemic behavior. The general chair of the CIBCB 2016 conference was Sansanee Auephanwiriyakul of Chaingmai University, another of Occupy Math’s excellent female colleagues in the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society. A past winner of CIBCB’s best paper award is Jennifer Hallinan. She won the award for an organism compiler that, given a target behavior, specified the biochemical modifications needed to make a bacteria exhibit that behavior. Take a minute and think about the amount of smarts needed to build something like that.

With these examples, historical and current, it is clear that women are capable of the highest level of achievement in the mathematical sciences. Achievement requires nurture, training, and support. For that reason…

Occupy Math feels compelled to ask how many advances and discoveries did we miss because of our prejudice?

Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex observed that

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

To update the language, women that act like people are accused of acting like men. In the culture Occupy Math grew up in, girls were pretty much brainwashed to define themselves in terms of men and, insidiously, in terms of how men perceived them. With a few exceptions, smart women hid that they were smart. Since being smart improves with practice, this belief that women should not be smart can take on the role of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Skills best honed with other people, could be neglected.  Katherine Johnson is a rare and stellar exception to this effect. The situation has clearly gotten better, but there is still a long way to go.

Occupy Math will conclude by repeating a request to his readers. Do you know of a female mathematician or a mathematician of color that Occupy Math has not mentioned? If so please comment, tweet, or send an e-mail to dashlock@uoguelph.ca. Feel free to interpret the term “mathematician” broadly. If we are going to pull through the current crises in our economy, climate, and society we need to maximize our human potential. Keeping the qualified out with prejudice is completely contrary to this goal.

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


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