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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Katherine Johnson, Research Mathematician and Aerospace Technologist at NASA Langley (Amy Echeverri)

By Amy Echeverri

Katherine Johnson inspired me when I was a teenager struggling in math with multiple teachers having told me that it was okay to fail because it was hard and girls are more suited to language arts. 

I read about her when I was 19 and immediately stopped listening to my college professor. I sat in the back of the lecture hall to read the textbook and extra readings, working the calculations as I read. Everything clicked. Instead of struggling to just pass, I excelled. I worked damn hard for my As in math, which was a gratifying improvement over working damn hard for my Cs. And with my new math skills, I saw immediate improvement in all my other academics, including history, Latin, and Spanish.

Math made me start to understand how thoughts and concepts can have logical flow. Understanding math caused my writing to improve. When people ask me how I became a professional writer, I tell them the usual things like daily practice and reading. Then I pause to reflect on how best to say the unusual part. Each time I tell someone that mathematics was the essential piece that made the difference between rejection slips and publication, I get a polite nod and a redirect to talk some more about my English lit classes. 

The trouble is that the connection between math and writing isn’t clear without an understanding of both. The connection is logic and while it’s possible to understand logic (somewhat) and understand writing without math, math is critical to making a deep connection. It makes the difference between an intellectual understanding and a fundamental understanding that runs so deep that it might invoke emotion.

So when I tell you that math is as essential to my writing as language, I mean it all the way to the core of who I am. I don’t mean it as a glib “hey kids, stay in school” sort of clichĂ©. Nor do I mean that without understanding mathematics it’s impossible to be a writer. I simply mean that an understanding both language and math makes it easier to understand writing than an understanding language alone.

Perhaps I should learn more math so that I can figure out how to explain this concept better. And thanks to Ms. Johnson, I mean that sentiment both as a wink and as a serious notion.

I'm grateful to Ms. Johnson for leading generations of women like me. She cut a valuable and necessary trail.

On Tuesday, 24 November 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Image credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters; featured on CBS News

Articles at NASA about Ms. Johnson:

1 comment:

  1. I had to take college algebra five times to pass. The final time I earned a B+ And that was is the grade I am proudest of. Math kept me from graduating my first go round at college and I returned. When I finally got it my ability to think critically improved greatly. I am a writer now too. Math has not only helped me in writing but in lifes decision making. English was always a breeze but now that I can truly understand math as a language there is indeed a much deeper connection with language for me.