Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

The little known story of women, especially African American women, who played a key role in the early days of the space program has been rescued from obscurity by Margot Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures.  Thanks to Maria Popova's Brain Pickings newsletter for alerting me to this.

We can now belatedly applaud the work of these women who, like their counterparts at Bletchley Park in England decoding the Nazi Enigma machine, were human computers (before there were such things as computers).

At NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia in the 1940s and 1950s, black female mathematicians and scientists like Katherine Johnson did the hard work of calculating the launch windows of the Apollo space mission.
Who knew?

Well, Margot Shetterly, who grew up near the Center, assumed as a child that, since she knew so many black people working in science and technology, this is what African Americans did.  She did not know then of the stereotype I grew up with: the black as waiter or maid, shoeshine "boy" or train porter. I never encountered educated or professional African Americans; and, sadly, many people today continue to stereotype blacks as poor, likely criminals.

The first five black women came to Langley in 1943 and forty years later, there were more than fifty of them, along with many unheralded white women whose knowledge and skill were essential in the race to  space.  I assume they worked in segregated offices in those pre-civil rights days.

By interesting coincidence, I saw a docudrama last night about Alan Turing, credited belatedly with having developed the idea behind the computer.  "Codebreakers" tells his tragic story, which is better known now than that of the women in Virginia but equally an object of prejudice and hatred instead of the pride he deserved to feel.

Because Turing was honest about being gay at a time when this was strictly illegal in Britain, he was arrested and chemically castrated in a brutal display of state-sponsored homophobia. It was the cold war and homosexuals like Turing were  seen as high security risks.  He committed suicide at age 41 in 1954 after playing a key role at the Bletchley Park codebreaking project and while teaching at a university in Manchester.

His was one of the most brilliant and original minds of the 20th century, and his life was cut short by hatred, his contribution to science until recently forgotten. Like the gifted women at Langley, he should have been honored for his pioneering work as the father of the computer and made proud of his work instead of condemned by fear and hatred.

It seems to me we, as a nation, have made much progress in overcoming official homophobia but less progress in racial understanding--as the current election campaign sadly reminds us.

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