Hidden Figures – NASA’s brilliant calculators #BlackHistoryMonth ^JB

Full Moon and silhouetted tree tops

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Full Moon with a blue filter
Full Moon image by PIRO from Pixabay

NASA Langley was the birthplace of the U.S. space program where astronauts like Neil Armstrong learned to land on the moon. Everyone knows the names of astronauts, but behind the scenes a group of African-American women were vital to the space program: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. Before electronic computers were invented ‘computers’ were just people who did calculations and that’s where they started out, as part of a segregated team of mathematicians. Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman to supervise staff there and helped make the transition from human to electronic computers by teaching herself and her staff how to program in the early programming language, FORTRAN.

FORTRAN code on a punched card, from Wikipedia.

The women switched from being the computers to programming them. These hidden women helped put the first American, John Glenn, in orbit, and over many years worked on calculations like the trajectories of spacecraft and their launch windows (the small period of time when a rocket must be launched if it is to get to its target). These complex calculations had to be correct. If they got them wrong, the mistakes could ruin a mission, putting the lives of the astronauts at risk. Get them right, as they did, and the result was a giant leap for humankind.

See the film ‘Hidden Figures’ for more of their story (trailer below).

This story was originally published on the CS4FN website and was also published in issue 23, The Women Are (Still) Here, on p21 (see ‘Related magazine’ below).


See more in ‘Celebrating Diversity in Computing

We have free posters to download and some information about the different people who’ve helped make modern computing what it is today.

Screenshot showing the vibrant blue posters on the left and the muted sepia-toned posters on the right

Or click here: Celebrating diversity in computing


Related Magazine …

This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Executable Biology – computing cancer using computational modelling

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London
Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Can a robot get cancer? Silly question. Our bodies are made of cells. Robots aren’t. Cells are the basic building blocks of life and come in lots of different forms from long thin nerve cells that allow us to sense the world, to round blood cells that carry oxygen around our bodies. Cancer occurs when cells go rogue and start reproducing in an uncontrolled way. A computer can’t get cancer, but you can allow virtual diseases to attack virtual cells inside a computer. Doing that may just help find cures. That is what Jasmin Fisher, who leads a research group at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, has devoted her career to.

Becoming a medic isn’t the only way to help save lives!

Computational Modelling is changing the way the sciences are done. It is the idea that you can run experiments on virtual versions of things you are investigating. A computer model is essentially just a program that simulates the phenomena of interest. For example, by writing a program that simulates the laws of Physics, you can use it to run virtual Physics experiments about the motion of the planets, say. If your virtual planets do follow the paths real planets do, then you have evidence the laws are right. If they don’t your laws (or the models) need to change. You can also make predictions such as when an eclipse will happen. If you are right it suggests the laws you coded are good descriptions of reality. If wrong, back to the drawing board.

Jasmin has been pioneering this idea with the stuff of life and death. She focusses on modelling cells and the specific ways that we think cancer attacks them. It gives a way of exploring what is going on at the level of the molecules inside cells, and so how well new medicines might, or might not, work. Experiments can be done quickly and easily on the programmed models by running simulations. That means the real experiments, taking up expensive lab time, can focus on things that are most likely to be successful. Jasmin’s work has helped researchers design more effective actual experiments because they start with a better understanding of what is going on. One of the most important questions she is studying is how cells end up becoming what they are, and how this differs between normal cells and cancer cells. Understand this and we will be much closer to understanding how to stop cancer.

Further reading: Books We Loved – ‘Critical Mass’, by Philip Ball, on the physics of society and how this is about computational modelling too.

This story was originally published here and is an article from CS4FN, a free computer science magazine from Queen Mary University of London which is sent to subscribing UK schools. To find out more please visit our About page. The article was also published in issue 23, The Women Are (Still) Here, on p3.