Katherine Johnson died last month, at the age of 101. If her name does not ring a bell then you probably never read the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and you probably never saw the movie Hidden Figures. Both book and movie are about a group of mathematicians who worked at NASA Langley during the “Space Race”, when the United States was in competition with the Soviet Union over prowess in space. The mathematicians in Hidden Figures were all women, and all African American. They worked at Langley, in Virginia in the U.S.A., at a time when the state of Virginia was fiercely devoted to racial segregation.
All the Langley women were talented, but Katherine Johnson seems to have been particularly brilliant, and she has been particularly honored over time. NASA has a Katherine Johnson computing facility. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Katherine Johnson was also a woman of faith. She was a Christian, a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (The headquarters and a seminary of the PC-USA are in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.) The PC-USA seems to be quite proud of her.
Indeed, all of the central characters in Hidden Figures were women of faith: Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden (who does not appear in the movie, since it focuses on the flight of John Glenn, which occurred prior to Darden’s arrival at Langley). Darden, like Johnson, was and is Presbyterian—an ordained elder in the church. Vaughn and Jackson were members of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. Margot Lee Shetterly does not neglect this aspect of their lives: church life appears regularly in the Hidden Figures book; it also makes a significant appearance in the movie.
There exists among many a certain persistent belief that religion and science do not mix, and are in some sort of conflict, and that scientists are not “church people”. My students at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville all believe this. It seems that every last one of them believes it. Both those who are not religious and those who are believe it.
As I have discussed often in this blog, this is a real problem for science: science cannot afford to have a sizable chunk of humankind (and a chunk that is only going to grow) believing that in some way science is not for people like them. A lot of smart people have written a lot of very thorough philosophical and historical arguments refuting that persistent belief. Quite a few folks associated with the Vatican Observatory have written such work (Fr. George Coyne among them). And still the belief persists, and persists strongly.
Perhaps the “religion and science do not mix” belief is better addressed, not by arguments, but simply by the existence of religious scientists. Isaac Newton was religious. That itself should end the whole “religion and science do not mix” belief, as Newton is arguably the most prominent scientist of all. But if for some reason Isaac Newton does not persuade (perhaps because he lived a long time ago), well, there are many other examples, such as Katherine Johnson—and Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden.
Brilliant people like Katherine Johnson go to church. No doubt the folks at her church will miss her now. No doubt they will also celebrate her life and scientific accomplishments.
Here is more material related to Katherine Johnson and the women of Hidden Figures:
Click here for the Hidden Figures entry in the VO Faith and Science pages.
Click here for a recent (March 3) NPR interview with Christine Darden and Margot Lee Shetterly.
Click here for articles from the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. on Katherine Johnson (from the VO Faith and Science pages).
Click here for an article from the A.M.E. Church on Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson (also from the VO Faith and Science pages).
This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.