Memoirs of Katherine Johnson: Her Amazing Life as a NASA Mathematician

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Katherine Johnson was honored by US President Barack Obama in 2015

Kris Connor / WireImage / Getty Images

My remarkable journey: a memory

Katherine Johnson, with Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore

HarperCollins

IT IS rare to suddenly find yourself with a familiar name at the age of 98. Yet until a few years ago, few people had heard of Katherine Johnson and her pioneering work as a mathematician at NASA during the Space Race. That all changed in 2016 following the success of Margot Lee Shetterly’s bestseller Hidden numbers and the film adaptation that followed.

“How could I have imagined,” writes Johnson, in the introduction to his autobiography My remarkable journey, “That between 97 and 101 years old, I would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom (with a kiss from my favorite president); appear on stage at the Oscars; receive thirteen honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa; have four major buildings named in my honor, including a second NASA facility… ”

The list goes on. Her autobiography, written with contributions from two of her three daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, shows how she got there. Few, if any, of the other mathematicians who worked with Johnson at NASA during the Space Race share this kind of mainstream fame, but neither have they been forced to overcome the kind of hurdles Johnson faced. was faced.

Her memoir dwells on the things she loved – math, family, and the supportive communities around her – but do not shy away from the details of the relentless cruelty, violence and injustice of the racial segregation and prejudices that permeated the lives of his family and friends, and those of African Americans in general. Add to that her gender, at a time when women weren’t credited with a lot of skill in anything other than house building and child rearing, and you get the picture that she wasn’t a woman. ordinary mathematician at NASA.

“Johnson had to be better than her white male colleagues to be successful, and luckily she was”

Johnson had to be better than her white male colleagues to be successful, and luckily she was. “The team soon discovered that I could do the equations faster than all of them,” she shamelessly writes, though she attributes this to the foresight of her tutor, William Schieffelin Claytor, adding the analytical geometry of the space to the program he taught her. , and the fact that she was the most recent college graduate.

Still, it was Johnson’s innate flair for her subject matter that had caught Claytor’s particular interest in the first place, and she would continue to shine in her field for decades to come. As the first person to suggest she pursue a career as a research mathematician, Claytor appears more than once in a book rich in tributes to all the people who helped Johnson along the way, as well as those who helped them. As a result, memories are replete with inspiring cameos of talented and tenacious models who not only achieve great things through thick and thin, but are often dedicated to creating opportunities for those who might follow them.

These positive anecdotes are especially welcome given the prejudices and racial tensions that form a lingering backdrop for the book, from the disparaging impact of segregation on children’s self-esteem to violent lynchings. About halfway there, we come to Johnson’s time on the National Aeronautics Advisory Committee (and its latest NASA iteration), which coincides with some of the civil rights movement’s most tumultuous times.

She describes the era not only as a high performing black woman deeply invested in justice and equality, but as the anxious mother of three young women who then enter adulthood, and as hungry as the rest of their peers. to play a role in the often terrifying events shaping social change.

People familiar with Hidden numbers will recognize the odd scene in his memoir, and where a small license was taken onscreen, Johnson is generous in pointing it out while providing apologies for the needs and challenges of the film format.

Overall, her book is a personal tale that tells the story of a woman gifted with math, love, and life. She was not deterred by the circumstances, and it set her on the path of a remarkable journey.

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