Photograph by NASA
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NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at her desk at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Photograph by NASA
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Why ‘hidden figures’ isn’t a label of pride

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Science, as a discipline, is somewhat obsessed with the notion of due credit. Woe betide the news writer who does not note which person is the lead author on a study. That’s one reason I’ve been personally fascinated with recent efforts to bring so-called hidden figures in science into the spotlight.

Stories highlighting marginalized people’s contributions to science have been trickling out for decades, but the term “hidden figures” leapt into our shared consciousness thanks to the incredible 2016 book, and subsequent movie, about the Black women who made vital calculations to send early NASA astronauts into space. Both works catapulted NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson into international stardom in her mid-90s—even though she made her contributions to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs decades earlier. Johnson, who died this week at the age of 101, was a true pioneer, and her story will resonate for decades to come.

The exponential increase in stories about other hidden figures can be inspiring stuff, although sometimes the patterns that emerge are heartbreaking. The more I read, the more I see two common narrative arcs: People who did the work loud and proud and were persecuted for it (looking at you, Hypatia), and people who did the work quietly and went consistently unrecognized for far too long (over to you, Eunice Foote and Rosalind Franklin).

Still, I have hope for scientists working today, thanks to the efforts of people like Jessica Wade. A woman working in physics, Wade has been adding biographies of notable women and people of color to Wikipedia’s bounty of scientist biographies. And writers such as Angela Saini are really hitting science where it hurts, uncovering the dark history of inaccuracies, biases, and downright bad research practices that led to so many good scientists being stifled. Maybe, as more people like them champion inclusion in science, the need to celebrate hidden figures will become a thing of the past.


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Accepting science—and getting our calendars in order: This Saturday, February 29, you may want to thank Julius Caesar for squaring Roman time with Egyptian calendars, and introducing leap years. It was a messy job, writes Brian Handwerk for Nat Geo. For one thing, Caesar decreed a 445-day-long year in 46 B.C. to rectify the calendars in one fell swoop. The period became known as, you guessed it, the Year of Confusion.

—curated and edited by David Beard

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