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B Hidden Figures school project

  1. Apr 6, 2017 #1
    There is a movie out--"Hidden Figures"--about how three women launched the space program; or something like that.

    My daughter wants to write about them for a school project.

    I keep suggesting my daughter write about Sophie Germain, or Emmy Noether, Daubechies or Hypatia.

    But my daughter insists that these three women were able to do math that men could not, and that are the reason Glenn was launched into space. (OK, if she wants to do that, OK, but now I am curious.)

    I am trying to figure out what thse women did, but by reading the press (which seems riddled with propganda), I am only able to assess that they did some algebraic number crunching.

    Am I wrong?

    What did they do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 6, 2017 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    HEre's the wikipedia writeup on the movie:


    Basically they did the trajectory math for the launch to check the computer calculations because during that time computer results were always suspect for mission critical work.

    The movie compresses a lot of the action into a very short time. However, they did do the calculations over a couple of months.

    It brings out the attitude of men towards women and white Americans towards black Americans at the time.

    Personally, I think its as inspiring as all the other women of mathematics stories and its message is still relevant today as we rely on computer technology for far too many things.
  4. Apr 6, 2017 #3

    Yes, but taht is propaganda. I do not care about Wiki, or compressed action, or couple of months or attitude of men or inspiration...

    "Trajectory math?" What, solve a simple non-linear equation?

    What did they do?
  5. Apr 6, 2017 #4


    Staff: Mentor

    Why not get the book and read t with your daughter instead of fretting over it?


    To understand the work done doesn't equate to actually doing the work and checking your answer tomake sure theres no flaw in your steps and to then resolve your answer against the computer numbers is truly difficult.

    This is not some conspiracy theory or propaganda. THis is what they did.
  6. Apr 6, 2017 #5
    I am not fretting. Why do you interpret a question as fretting?

    I looked at the book, but the book was about compressed action, couple of months or attitude of men or inspiration.

    I am asking a question: "what did they do."

    I just want to know what they DID. No one seems to know.

    (I would also like to know why the men could not do this. I understand that even Glen wanted the women to do this work. But that only suggests attention to detail in number cruching. They MUST have done something more than that.)
  7. Apr 6, 2017 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    The men were not details oriented thats the basic difference.

    You could teach your daughter how to use a slide rule and adding machine with manual logarithm lookup in a book to show the tediousness of it and compare your results to a computer.
  8. Apr 6, 2017 #7
    I have already taught my daughter to use a slide rule. I have also taught her Geogebra.

    But, if that is the "basic difference," then these women did nothing and the movie is nothing more than a brouhaha about sexism. And the assertion that women put Glenn into space is laughable and undermines the ability of what women CAN do in math (see OP).

    But I don't believe it. They had to have done something substantive.
  9. Apr 6, 2017 #8


    Staff: Mentor

  10. Apr 6, 2017 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    They mention Euler's method of approximation and so they may have developed or used a better approximation algorithm.

    I know in my computational physics coursework we experimented with several kinds of integration algorithms and found that Euler's while the easiest to use failed when used in other contexts where error would begin to swamp the expected results.

    These kinds of things were needed to compare and contrast your calculations to be sure you were on track. Its something that students don't learn as acomputer can often do the grunt work.
  11. Apr 6, 2017 #10
  12. Apr 6, 2017 #11

    Euler's method is the "see spot run" of numerical methods. Other more powerful methods were well known at the time. If this is all they did, then they did number crunching and assertions as to their having put Glen into space is invalid.

    What did they do?

    Please, if you cannot answer this question, stop responding. I want someone who knows what they did to inform me.
  13. Apr 6, 2017 #12


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    Gold Member

    Most of the aerospace related technical design centres used to have teams of human calculators . These people usually did very long systematic calculations like solving large equation sets . There were both men and women in these teams but certainly they tended to have more women than men .

    The film though confuses these calculators with another class of people - the actual engineers and scientists .

    Female engineers and scientists were not common in the 1920's to 1960's period . Those that did exist tended to have way above average ability . This came about mostly because only the best could obtain the scholarships needed to get any technical education in those days and only the ones that were determined to succeed got through .

    When I joined RR in the early 1970's there were still some people there that had been human calculators during the war period though they had all by then been moved on to other work .

    Going back to the human calculators - the first use of human calculators that I know of was in the design of the R100 and R101 Airships . The last use was in the design of Concorde's wings .
  14. Apr 6, 2017 #13

    So if that is all they did, what is all the fuss about them? They did nothing any patient person with a modicum of math could do.

    I would think my daughter would beneift much more by learning about Emmy Noether and ignoring this propaganda.
  15. Apr 6, 2017 #14


    Staff: Mentor

    I think this thread has run its course. There's nothing more we can provide here that you couldn't have looked up and researched yourself.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 6, 2017
  16. Apr 6, 2017 #15


    Staff: Mentor

    Here's one more reference on the importance of what they accomplished from another woman physicist:


    and here's IBM's take on it:


    and the BBC take on the history:


    based on these it would seem they were the first to write the code and develop the numerical functions to accomplish the task, did the calculations and checked that things were done correctly. This is an incredible feat that even after getting it done you still don't know if its right until the mission is flown and someones life depended on it.

    Much of the math here involved Classical Physics, Calculus, Differential Equations, Real/Complex Analysis, Boundary Value Problems, Spherical Trigonometry (seldom taught today in school) Linear Algebra and Statistical Analysis and I'm sure I missed some other crucial STEM subjects.

    So many times, a simple mistake in units conversion can destroy the results of a calculation and ruin a mission. The most famous case was the 1990 space probe that was lost due to a units conversion mistake. Errors can come in in many ways so you have to check and recheck every calculation by computer and manually.


    I don't know what else can be posted.

    Remember its a movie. Its not real history, its altered and compressed history focused on a specific event stream often to bring out some feature not noticed by others before.
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