Movie "Hidden Figures" [Spoilers]

  • #1
russ_watters
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Great movie, if you haven't seen it. I have a question on the technical side for those who have and might know the math/history. This is the GD forum, but this is as much a math and orbital mechanics question...

The movie follows three [real] black women through the early space program (a mathematician, engineer and mathematician/computer supervisor), over a period of several years. The stories are parallel yet intertwined. There is some recognizable technical detail on real problems solved during the work. I'm wondering if someone could close a loop that was surprisingly left open during the movie (I think):

One of the key problems described was the issue of converting a parabolic path to an elliptical/circular one for orbit insertion and vice versa for re-entry -- for John Glenn's first orbital flight. There apparently was no analytical solution to the problem, but the "eureka" moment was using Euler's method to bridge the two trajectories somehow. While watching I thought I remembered it as a numerical integration tool, but close enough; numerical differential equation solving. The mathematician is shown to have solved it on a blackboard in a movie (I didn't catch the actual math while watching).

Parallel to this is a humor element of the difficult start-up of NASA's first computer, an IBM mainframe. Complete with sledgehammering the door fame out to get the parts into the lab, technicians who couldn't get it to run, etc. The mathematician supervisor recognized this would replace all the human "computers" (human spreadsheet cells) and taught herself and then all the black, female mathematicians she supervised how to use it. The computer got running with her help just as John Glenn's flight was happening.

So here's my question: since Euler's method is numerical, isn't it true that you can only solve iterations at a time on a blackboard and need a computer to do the bulk of the work? The movie pitted the IBM mainframe and human mathematicians as enemies in the movie, even having her check the computer's work directly on this problem (not explaining how the computer came to be working on it). But this would have been an opportunity for bridging between two characters and both winning and resolving a conflict by having the two women collaborate on the problem. On the one hand it seems a real "eureka" moment, (though on the other I would think they would have known a lot about how they could use the computer before they bought it). It seems like a missed opportunity --- if it really happened the way I envision. Anyone know if it did?

[I ordered the book for my mom's birthday next month, so maybe I'll find out...]
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
.Scott
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I didn't see the movie - but I'll try to comment. I believe the IBM mainframe used on the Mercury project was the IBM 1620, a computer I have worked on myself.

It would have been a very simple matter to program the 1620 to execute a task involving an iterative solution. The machine used binary coded decimal (BCD) arithmetic - and addition and multiplication look-up tables for the decimal digits 0 to 9. The program could have been coded in machine language without difficulty - and either loaded by cards, paper tape, or entered directly into the programmers console.

Even today, computer programs need to be validated - and most certainly when they are life-critical or mission-critical. One of my high school teachers worked at NASA in those days and talked about everything being done at least twice. So even when such calculations were done by human computers, there was redundancy - with at least two teams creating independent results.

Also, there are some presumptions we make today that were not so quickly made 50 years ago. One is that a computer could actually execute thousands or even millions of steps without making a single error - or a single undetected error. Previous ADP (Automated Data Processing) system components, such as the high speed card reader and the IBM 402 accounting machine (both of which I have worked with), were not so reliable. So it was very prudent to step carefully into EDP (Electronic Data Processing).
 
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  • #3
scottdave
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They may have made it more dramatic for the screen. It seems to be accurate according to an article I read. I'll get the link and post it.
Also, Euler did not have computers. EDIT: Working on a blackboard is more tedious but not impossible. It may have been that she came up with the idea to use an iterative method, which may have then gone back and calculated either with the "human computers" or the electronic computer.
 
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  • #4
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They may have made it more dramatic for the screen.
This is true for every semi-historical movie. Still a great movie with a wonderful and inspiring message.
 
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  • #7
scottdave
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Wow, her interview has some of the most concise and to-the-point-responses I have ever seen in an interview!
Yes, I thought so too.
 

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