9 Fascinating Facts About Katherine Johnson

Before she helped send the first astronauts to the moon, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and became the subject of an award-winning film, Katherine Johnson was an anonymous “female computer” doing thankless but vital work at NASA. Her accomplishments have since been recognized, and today she’s regarded as one of the pioneers of the space age. In honor of her upcoming birthday (she turns 100 years old on August 26), here are some things you might not have known about Katherine Johnson.

1. SHE WAS A COLLEGE GRADUATE AT 18.

Johnson’s gift for numbers allowed her to accelerate through her education. Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918, she enrolled directly into the second grade when she reached school age, and by age 10 she was ready for high school.

As an undergrad at West Virginia State College, she took every math class that was available to her. One of her mentors, famed black mathematician Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, even designed a course on the geometry of space especially for her. At the age of 18, Johnson graduated summa cum laude with degrees in both mathematics and French.

2. SHE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST BLACK STUDENTS INTEGRATED INTO WEST VIRGINIA’S GRADUATE SCHOOLS.

Johnson had plans to continue her education even further. In 1939, the newly-married Johnson—then known as Katherine Goble—enrolled as a graduate student at West Virginia University after being selected as one of the first three black students—and the first black woman—to attend the state’s newly-integrated graduate school program. After completing her first session, she discovered that she was pregnant and opted to withdraw from school in order to raise a family with her husband, James Goble. (They eventually had three daughters.)

3. NASA REJECTED HER THE FIRST TIME SHE APPLIED.

In the mid-1950s, NASA (then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA) was looking into sending people to space for the first time—a task that required crunching a lot of numbers. Without the high-powered computers we have at our disposal today, the agency hired a team of women “computers” to do the complex math for low wages. Johnson was interested, but the first time she applied for the job there were no positions left for her. She applied a second time the following year and made it in.

4. SHE HELPED SEND JOHN GLENN INTO ORBIT.

 NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (2nd L) appears onstage with (L-R) actors Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Astronaut John Glenn’s three orbits around Earth in 1962 marked a pivotal moment in the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia. His may be the face most people remember, but behind the scenes, Johnson played an important part in getting him off the ground. The orbital equations used to choreograph his mission had been uploaded to a computer, but this being the early 1960s, electronic calculators still weren’t a totally reliable method for handling sophisticated equations. Before climbing into the cockpit, Glenn requested that Johnson check the computer’s work by redoing all the math by hand, saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” The flight went off without a hitch.

5. SHE HELPED SEND THE FIRST MEN TO THE MOON.

The same year John Glenn made his historic journey, NASA received orders from President John F. Kennedy to get to work on a more ambitious mission: sending a manned shuttle to the moon. This trip would require even more calculations, and Johnson once again played a significant role. She worked with NASA’s team of engineers to pinpoint the time and location of departure that would put astronauts on track for the moon. The Apollo moon landing program was a success, and arguably one of the most famous events in the history of space travel.

6. SHE WROTE THE BOOK ON SPACE TRAVEL (LITERALLY).

NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman wasn’t exaggerating when she said that Johnson “literally wrote the textbook on rocket science” in a statement from NASA. She co-authored one of the first textbooks on space while while working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at the Langley Research Center.

7. SHE CONTRIBUTED TO PLANS FOR A MARS MISSION.

Later in her career at NASA, Johnson worked on some of the agency’s early plans for a mission to Mars. She retired in 1986, decades before NASA would release a detailed plan for reaching the red planet to the public.

8. SHE WAS GIVEN THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM.

 U.S. President Barack Obama kisses former NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson after he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during an East Room ceremony November 24, 2015 at the White House
Alex Wong, Getty Images

Few people knew her name when the first astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, but in 2015, Johnson received recognition on a national scale. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The medal is the highest honor a civilian can receive.

9. SHE EVENTUALLY RECEIVED HER DOCTORATE.

More than 75 years after she dropped out of graduate school, Johnson received an honorary doctorate degree from West Virginia University. According to the institution, Johnson earned the honor by “attaining national and international preeminence in the field of astrophysics and providing distinguished leadership and service in her field.”

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER