Calculating Women

NASA Langley Research Center
Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who calculated the reentry trajectory for John Glenn’s Mercury Friendship 7 mission as he returned from orbiting the earth, 1962

After a precisely calculated and perfectly executed voyage, the Mars Orbiter Mission reached its destination on September 24, 2014. The Indian Space Research Organisation, which oversaw the mission, had succeeded in doing what Russia, the United States, China, and Japan had failed to do: send an unmanned probe into orbit around Mars on the first attempt. The project’s success captured headlines worldwide, and a photograph of the cheering women on the administrative staff in the operations control room went viral on the Internet. Subsequently, articles about the female scientists and engineers who were central to the success of the project were widely published.

Perhaps never before had the participation of women in a space mission been so visible, even though women had been making fundamental computational contributions to astronomy and aeronautics for well over a century. Three recent books—Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (which has also been turned into an Oscar-nominated film), and Nathalia Holt’s The Rise of the Rocket Girls—show some of what they accomplished.

In the late nineteenth century, the term “computer” referred not to a machine but to a person who took measurements, graphed data, and made calculations that helped interpret information and predict results. Although computing was considered mechanical and menial, it was a necessary task that required precision and patience. Before the invention of the modern digital computer, it was crucial to the advance of science and technology. Computers were often women, who could be paid less than men and could work during wartime. Despite the integral part they played in establishing the US as a leader in modern astrophysics and space exploration, their work has remained largely unknown.

Although advances in science and technology are often portrayed as the work of solitary men—for example, Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein—science has always been a collective enterprise, dependent on many individuals who work behind the scenes. This has become increasingly true as more scientists work on large research projects funded by governments and staffed by hundreds of technicians. Yet despite the collaborative nature of science, for too much of its history the work of women and scientists of color was exploited, deemed rudimentary, and unacknowledged. Taken together, the books by Shetterly, Sobel, and Holt provide important insights into how they contributed to the emergence of Big Science.

Sobel’s book recounts the history of female computers whose work at the Harvard College Observatory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was crucial to discoveries in modern astrophysics. Edward Pickering, the director of the observatory from 1877 to 1919, sensed, as Sobel writes, that “the stars…were telegraphing important behavioral clues.” It was unclear, however, just what the stars…

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