#HiddenFigures = Progress vs Bigotry

Hidden Figures, a movie based on Margot Lee Shetterly's novel about the Black women who helped send the first American into space, is essentially about a group of phenomenal women who worked harder and longer than their counterparts. Facing the intersection of racism and misogyny was a significant barrier to their ability to contribute to the best of their ability. But still, they rise.

I'm a sucker for movies about space, but I was also worried.  It's common for a feel good inspirational movie, in an attempt to show individual merit as overcoming all, to gloss over the difficulties of life in a specific era.  I hoped that the issues involved with race and gender were not minimized.  In fact, I hoped that progress and bigotry were properly shown as antagonists toward each other.  All progress, including science, has been hampered by bigotry.

I'm pleased to say that my worries went completely out the window.  Hidden Figures did a phenomenal job showing how the complexity of the science involved was further magnified by the discrimination of the early 60s.  

Katherine Johnson is a legend in NASA circles. One of her most important contributions to science was the main story arc in the film. She helped calculate the trajectories needed for the first Americans in space, the Mercury Seven, to launch and return successfully.  Bigotry almost prevented this early on - her neighborhood of Greenbrier County didn't school Black children past 8th grade. Katherine's parents had to rely on financial help from her teachers (most likely poor themselves, but saw promise in Katherine)  to send her to school in Katherine's parents the money to send her off to West Virginia.  After her education success, she had to break down another barrier by being the first African American female at the West Virginia University graduate school.  This was only made possible by a recent Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, which forced states to provide equivalent education to African Americans.

Johnson was portrayed as a proud widow who would not be talked down to or diminished. She knew her own value and she consistently pushed to have it recognized, whether it meant putting her name as co-author on a paper featuring her work or having a tense conversation with her boss about being invited to government briefings. She openly discussed the confusion over why she should have use a colored coffee pot, or why she should have to run across the NASA campus just to use the bathroom. Johnson also didn't need a man to define her.  She got with her husband, Jim Johnson, on her own terms. 

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

While the film was focused around Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were also featured as amazing women who had to fight against bigotry every step of the way. Jackson was a more than capable mathematician that was refused an engineering position because NASA changed the requirements at the last minute, likely because they saw a Black woman applying for the position. Jackson had to go as far as to get court order to take the necessary classes at a white, male school in order to advance to become NASA's first Black female engineer. I'll never forget the judge's dry tone when speaking about how "segregation is the law of the state, no matter what the federal government says". Jackson essentially had to appeal to the judge's ego to get the court order, which felt dirty and sad, even though it was necessary and pragmatic. It just saddens me to see what my people needed to go through just to be given a CHANCE at being great.

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan

Vaughan was a trailblazer in her own right. She managed the Black women "computers" who did the manual calculations for NASA, a group which initially included Jackson and Johnson. She was repeatedly refused a supervisor rank, even though she was doing the work of a supervisor. Vaughan saw the incoming automation of the computer task via IBM as an opportunity.  She studied the brand new Fortran programming language, and proved herself to be much more capable at programming the IBM than the white men tasked to the machine.  Her mastery of the language enabled her to teach her entire computing group. She then led these woman to become IBM programmers, giving them job security.  She eventually became NASA's first Black supervisor.

The only questionable part of the movie was when Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, showed how "good" NASA was by allowing the Black women to use the bathroom in the main building (how quaint!) after Johnson confronted him about having to run through all kinds of weather just to get to a colored restroom. Since Harrison was the face of politics in the movie, it seemed like an attempt to show the bigotry that Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn felt to be that of only a few bad apples (like Johnson's rival Paul Stafford) instead of being systematically embedded into all fabric of life. A lesser movie would have focused only on the positives after this moment, so viewers can feel good about this "vindication" of merit over bigotry.  Hidden Figures avoids this trope and does a great job of staying on track and showing the struggle of progress vs bigotry up until the very end.  That struggle continues today.

Bad ass Black women. Bad ass science. GO SEE THIS MOVIE! And check out NASA's site dedicated to Hidden Figures as well as current employees deemed Modern Figures.

21 Martian Years of Discovery

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

40 Earth years ago (or 21 Martian years, since a Martian year lasts 687 Earth days), we landed our first probe on Mars.  Basically, this was NASA's way of telling the world "the Moon landing wasn't enough".  These weren't just wimpy probes that crashed into the planet without doing any science ... they did work!

A large chunk of today's common knowledge about Mars came from these probes with their 70s fashion and style. According to NASA:

"NASA's Viking 1 and 2 missions to Mars, each consisting of an orbiter and a lander, became the first space probes to obtain high resolution images of the Martian surface; characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface; and conduct on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet. Viking provided the first measurements of the atmosphere and surface of Mars. "

For more info, check out the 40th (and 21st) anniversary video below!

Jupiter's Magnetic Personality

Mega Man loves Jupiter's magnetic fields

Mega Man loves Jupiter's magnetic fields

NASA's spacecraft Juno has drifted for five long years in space heading toward Jupiter, the gas giant that laughed when Pluto was demoted from planethood.  Juno arrives on July 4th, bringing plenty of hot dogs, hamburgers, and fireworks.  In the scientific world, these are known as experiments.  Check the following blurb from NASA's press release:

"In order to look inside the planet, the science team equipped Juno with a pair of magnetometers. The magnetometers, which were designed and built by an in-house team of scientists and engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will allow scientists to map Jupiter's magnetic field with high accuracy and observe variations in the field over time."

Check out a nice recap from space.com, and the video below from NASA on Jupiter's magnetic field.

NASA is sending the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, to peer beneath its cloudy surface and explore the giant planet's structure and magnetic field. Juno's twin magnetometers, built at Goddard Space Flight Center, will give scientists their first look within Jupiter at the powerful dynamo that drives its magnetic field.

B.O.B. vs Very.Old.Greeks

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Rapper B.O.B. is debating your favorite astrophysicist's favorite astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson about whether the Earth is flat ...

Seriously, there are diss tracks ...

The mistaken rapper needs to refocus his anger at Eratosthenes, because he put in work 2,000 years ago to prove that the Earth is indeed round.

How'd he do it without access to complicated machinery?  He observed that a long well was completely filled with sunlight at a very specific time of year (noon on the summer solstice, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky).  He correctly stated that this meant that the sun light was coming directly down onto the Earth in a straight line. Any trees, structures, etc would not cast a significant shadow since the sunlight is directly on top of them.

Since the sun is many times larger than the Earth, if the Earth is flat, sunlight would hit the Earth at a straight line across the entire "length" of the planet.  However, Eratosthenes observed shadows at an angle on structures in his hometown of Alexandria, Egypt. This instantly means that sunlight hits the Earth at different angles, which means that the Earth must be curved.

So boom B.O.B., you got served.

But Eratosthenes wasn't done.  He measured the angle of the shadows in Alexandria, and used it to calculate the circumference of the Earth to an astonishing precision - 25,000 miles (within 1% of the currently known value). Oh, he also invented geography.

For the nitty gritty, check out the video below from MIT via Khan Academy:

Using geometry to measure the circumference of the Earth. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA More information at http://k12videos.mit.edu/terms-conditions




Virtual Blackness at #CES2016

Denzel Washington in Virtuosity (1995), Paramount Pictures

Denzel Washington in Virtuosity (1995), Paramount Pictures

There were two themes that unexpectedly intertwined for me during the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas: Virtual reality (VR) and the representation of Blackness at the annual trade show. VR uses a headset that enables you to experience a simulated world in all three dimensions: you can look behind, in front, above, and below you. I look like an absolute dork with the headset on, but the experience is worth it.

Believe it or not, I'm flying through space in the game Eve Valkyrie for the Oculus Rift

Believe it or not, I'm flying through space in the game Eve Valkyrie for the Oculus Rift

Oculus stole the show with its premium Rift headset for PCs and Gear VR headset for Samsung mobile phones. The Rift is a $600 beast that requires a very powerful computer to run, resulting in unparalleled visuals. Gear VR can add an immersive effect to many videos, most notably videos shot by athletes doing crazy athlete things on a GoPro mobile camera.

The Samsung Gear VR let's me surf ... Which is something I'd never do otherwise

The Samsung Gear VR let's me surf ... Which is something I'd never do otherwise

As I dipped in and out of these virtual worlds, I imagined the potential of bringing new experiences and cultures to the user. What if a kid in rural America can get a sense of the warmth and togetherness that can be experienced in areas that constantly top the country's homicide list?  And vice versa? As I pondered that future, my mind was consistently brought back to the present whenever I observed the towering product displays that each company paid way too much money for. I was pleased to see a diverse array of races and gender represented on the displays. Unfortunately, the displays were more likely to serve as virtual representations of Blackness - my skin, my hair, my body - than the conerence attendees that I networked with.

Blackness was on display at several CES booths. 

Blackness was on display at several CES booths. 

This was most apparent in the exhibit hall, where there were many brands that sold the image of Black Cool (shout out to Rebecca Walker) for their headphones, sound systems, and photos.  Yet the very people staffing the booths and speaking the company line rarely looked like me. This introduces a conflict that I am slightly ashamed of. While I am happy that the power of using Blackness to sell products is not ignored due to a fear of scaring off a majority non-Black tech conference audience, I wish that the Black representation was not limited to a virtual screen or celebrity.

Wyclef serenades the crowd at CES 2016

Wyclef serenades the crowd at CES 2016

Whenever a Black celebrity appeared, there was always a sense of awkwardness on both sides.  Most of it was pretty harmless, like an old white gentleman asking me "Who is T-Pain and I am too old that I shouldn't care" (he was talking about Flo Rida). But there was also the intentional misuse of slang, with several people yelling out rap catch phrases ironically and then giggling afterwards.  "Hey, look at this person who is so unlike us - let's gawk at the creature!"  I often thought that these people didn't DESERVE this level of awesome Black celebrity.  It's the same feeling I had 18 years ago when I saw a bunch of fellow college students barely responding to a still-underground Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform Redefinition in the way I always knew that they could.

Flo Rida entered into a collboration with IK Multimedia for a new mobile mic recording solution.  

Flo Rida entered into a collboration with IK Multimedia for a new mobile mic recording solution.  

Some may say that I am adding unnecessary issues to a tech conference. But unfortunately, being Black in this country means that I can't opt out of seeing things from a certain perspective.  Even something as well meaning as a drone reconnaissance van for taking photos of sports events can bring to mind an overzealous Ferguson police department unleashing advanced hardware against peaceful protestors. I am still hoping for the day where Blackness at major tech conferences is not only virtual, but realized both in the products being sold and the people selling them.