NASA space scientist and mathematician Katherine Johnson poses for a portrait at her desk with an adding machine and a Celestial Training device at NASA Langley Research Center in 1962. (Photo by NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
The announcement of the passing of mathematician Katherine Johnson has inspired an all-round celebration for the woman who worked as a ‘human computer’.
She was among those who played a key role in astronaut John Glenn's mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth.
Katherine completed high school at 14 years old because she skipped a few grades and eventually graduated from university at the age of 18. After working as a teacher for years, she ended up working at the NASA Langley Research Centre.
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In 2016, Katherine was portrayed in the award-winning movie, Hidden Figures, with her previous colleagues, former NASA engineer, Mary Jackson and mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan, who was also NASA's first black supervisor.
The mathematician worked at NASA from 1953 to 1986 and died at 101 years.
In a statement, the U.S. agency says the following of the legendary mathematician: “At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her. We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.”
These are some of the quotes from her that provide a window into the essence of Katherine Johnson:
Give credit to everybody who helped, I didn’t do anything alone.
Girls are capable of doing everything that men are capable of doing, sometimes they have more imagination than men.
I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.
Sometimes I could see that others in the class did not understand what [W.W. Schieffelin Claytor] was teaching. So I would ask questions to help them. He’d tell me that I should know the answer, and I finally had to tell him that I did know the answer, but the other students did not. I could tell.
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When the space programme came along I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings I asked permission to go, and they said the girls don’t usually go. And I said, well, is there a law? They said no and then my boss said let her go.
The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.
The main thing is I liked what I was doing, I liked work. I liked the stars and stories we were telling, and it was a joy to contribute to the literature work that was going to be coming out. But little did I think it would go this far.
I was always around people who were learning something. I liked to learn.
I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.
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If you want to know you ask a question. There’s no such thing as a dumb question, it’s dumb if you don’t ask it.
I think it’s important that you learn the background of what you’re working on and how to do it, and you’ll get the right answer.
If you lose your curiosity then you stop learning.
Sources: NASA, WHRO Public Media, The New York Times.
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