• Aleksandra Brittain

Remembering Katherine Johnson


Katherine Johnson passed from the mortal world into the stars today, at the age of 101. If you haven’t watched Hidden Figures, a quick primer: Johnson herself said she made “the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module.” So, basically: her math put men on the moon in 1969. Wow.


She also did trajectory analysis for the 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight; was a pioneer in orbital spaceflight equations; and was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author on a research report.


In short: Katherine Johnson was a math goddess, and we should all worship her.


If you’d like to introduce your kids to the legend that is Katherine Johnson, we have a few jumping off points:



Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker: As a child, Katherine Johnson loved to count. She counted the steps on the road, the number of dishes and spoons she washed in the kitchen sink, everything! Boundless, curious, and excited by calculations, young Katherine longed to know as much as she could about math, about the universe. From Katherine's early beginnings as a gifted student to her heroic accomplishments as a prominent mathematician at NASA, this is the story of a groundbreaking American woman who not only calculated the course of moon landings but, in turn, saved lives and made enormous contributions to history.



A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America On The Moon by Suzanne Slade: The inspiring true story of mathematician Katherine Johnson--made famous by the award-winning film Hidden Figures--who counted and computed her way to NASA and helped put a man on the moon!


Katherine knew it was wrong that African Americans didn't have the same rights as others--as wrong as 5+5=12. She knew it was wrong that people thought women could only be teachers or nurses--as wrong as 10-5=3. And she proved everyone wrong by zooming ahead of her classmates, starting college at fifteen, and eventually joining NASA, where her calculations helped pioneer America's first manned flight into space, its first manned orbit of Earth, and the world's first trip to the moon!



Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly with Winifred Conkling: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were good at math...really good.

They participated in some of NASA's greatest successes, like providing the calculations for America's first journeys into space. And they did so during a time when being black and a woman limited what they could do. But they worked hard. They persisted. And they used their genius minds to change the world.


In this beautifully illustrated picture book edition, we explore the story of four female African American mathematicians at NASA, known as "colored computers," and how they overcame gender and racial barriers to succeed in a highly challenging STEM-based career.


If you’d like to read some more in-depth accounts about what Katherine Johnson did at NASA, we’ve got books for you too.


Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt: In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they recruited an elite group of young women -- known as human computers -- who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American ballistic missiles. But they were never interested in developing weapons, their hearts lay in the dream of space exploration. So when the JPL became part of a new agency called NASA, the women worked on the first probes to the moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond.


Later, as digital computers largely replaced human ones, JPL was unique in training and retaining its brilliant pool of women. They became the first computer programmers and engineers, and through their efforts, we launched the ships that showed us the contours of our solar system. Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women who broke the boundaries of both gender and science.



Rocket Men by Craig Nelson: A richly detailed and dramatic account of one of the greatest achievements of humankind. At 9:32 A.M. on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched in the presence of more than a million spectators who had gathered to witness a truly historic event. It carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins to the last frontier of human imagination: the moon.


Rocket Men is the thrilling story of the moon mission, and it restores the mystery and majesty to an event that may have become too familiar for most people to realize what a stunning achievement it represented in planning, technology, and execution.

Through interviews, twenty-three thousand pages of NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA documents on the space race, Craig Nelson re-creates a vivid and detailed account of the Apollo 11 mission. From the quotidian to the scientific to the magical, readers are taken right into the cockpit with Aldrin and Armstrong and behind the scenes at Mission Control.



Chasing the Moon: the People, the Politics, and the Promise that Launched America into the Space Age by Robert Stone: A companion to PBS's American Experience draws on eyewitness accounts and newly discovered archival material to chronicle the stories of the visionaries who helped America win the space race with the first lunar landing. Don’t let this short summary dissuade you! There’s so much in there I don’t have room to put it all in this blog post.





Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson: By August 1968, the American space program was in danger of failing in its two most important objectives: to land a man on the Moon by President Kennedy's end-of-decade deadline, and to triumph over the Soviets in space. With its back against the wall, NASA made an almost unimaginable leap: It would scrap its usual methodical approach and risk everything on a sudden launch, sending the first men in history to the Moon--in just four months. And it would all happen at Christmas.


In a year of historic violence and discord--the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago--the Apollo 8 mission would be the boldest, riskiest test of America's greatness under pressure. Drawn from hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with the astronauts, their loved ones, NASA personnel, and myriad experts, and filled with vivid and unforgettable detail, Rocket Men is the definitive account of one of America's finest hours. In this real-life thriller, Kurson reveals the epic dangers involved, and the singular bravery it took, for mankind to leave Earth for the first time--and arrive at a new world.


And if you’d just like to have a movie night and celebrate Katherine Johnson’s life (and her excellent portrayal by Taraji P. Henson), we’ve got two copies of Hidden Figures on DVD, and several copies of the novelization as well.




Happy reading! And remember, in the words of Oscar Wilde: We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

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