Black History Month: Notable Scientists
In February we celebrate the African diaspora including African-American history. This week, Eureka recognizes a nuclear scientist and a mathematician.
Katherine Johnson: She got us to the moon...and back
Research mathematician Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), whose title was "computer," was one of the unsung heroes of the early space program in the US. Her painstaking work enabled US astronauts to reach the moon and back. Wielding a slide rule and a pencil, Johnson calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth. Her impeccable calculations had previously helped plot the successful flight of Alan B. Shepard Jr., the first American in space, and later John Glenn’s historic orbit of Earth. Still, despite her pivotal role in space research, Johnson remained relatively unknown until a book and then Hollywood movie, both titled “Hidden Figures,” told the story of four black female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA). A graduate of the historically black West Virginia State College in 1937, John was later one of three chosen to integrate West Virginia University’s flagship graduate schools. She initially taught high school mathematics but left to join the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory in 1953, which launched her work in aeronautical science. In 2015, at age 97, Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. You can learn more about Johnson on this NASA website.
J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr: A pioneering scientist during wartime
Scientific phenom and nuclear scientist J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (1923-2011), was part of the Manhattan Project. Wilkins entered the University of Chicago in 1936 at the age of 13, and went on to earn undergraduate, graduate and PhD degrees in mathematics there. He was one of the youngest students to ever attend the university. Dr. Wilkins briefly taught at Tuskegee University before returning to the University of Chicago’s storied Metallurgical Laboratory (The Met) in 1944 headed by European refugee scientists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. It was wartime, and Dr. Wilkins researched methods for producing fissionable nuclear materials, including plutonium-239, used in the production of nuclear weapons. Dr. Wilkins faced prejudice early on when his group at The Met was transferred to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where Jim Crow laws meant segregated housing for Dr. Wilkins in plywood shacks without plumbing. Wilkins refused to live under those conditions, and so continued to teach mathematics at the University of Chicago. It is not clear if he knew that his work in Chicago was being used to furnish the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, but it was clear his scientific group had misgivings. On July 17, 1945, seventy scientists including Dr. Wilkins sent a petition to US President Harry S. Truman appealing him to avert the use of atomic weapons against Japan. It was never seen by the President or the Secretary of War. After the war ended, Dr. Wilkins moved to private industry, helping to develop and design peaceful uses for nuclear materials. He also earned degrees in mechanical engineering. Later he joined Howard University, where he created the first doctoral program in mathematics. You can read more about Dr. Wilkins here and here.