If you saw the movie you’ll remember the scene: John Glenn about to board Mercury 7 and stopping to call NACA (later NASA). “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he says. “If she says it’s okay then we go.”
Well, that really happened. John Glenn really made that call. Not on launch day but three days before, but still.
That is only one of the many astonishing stories you will find in this book, which, yes, is a history of black women (and white women) mathematicians in the American aviation and space programs from World War II on, but it is also a history of American aviation, of the US space program, of segregation and race prejudice in America, of how Russia used the US’s race relations as a diplomatic weapon against the US abroad.
“Eighty percent of the world’s population is colored,” the NACA’s chief legal counsel Paul Dembling had written in a 1956 file memo. “In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country. Those countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States.”
But they could, oh, they could, and another astonishing part of this story is the determination and dignity of people like Katherine A. Goble Johnson and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn in just doing their damn jobs the best they knew how, which was good enough to help the US to victory in WWII and into space from Sputnik through today. Almost 600 human beings have been in space and all of them at least in part owe their launches, orbits and re-entries to the math worked by these women.
It took Shetterly five years to research and write this book and in the epilogue she writes
There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages and backgrounds. It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities–legalized segregation, racial discrimination–there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.
In other words, this story is in microcosm what we would like our nation, our world to actually be. And for this one place, this moment in time, was.
But before we pat ourselves on the back too hard, Shetterly also points out that all this work was taking place in the great state of Virginia, which during the time of this story closed down its public schools for five years rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education and integrate their classrooms. Never underestimate the power of people to hurt each other just as much as they possibly can.
A dense, informative read, highly recommended. If only for the appearance of Star Trek near the end. Yep, Dorothy and Mary and Katherine were all fans, because, well, Uhura.
Big city homicide detective Casey Duncan is hiding in plain sight from her own demons and then her best friend Diana is attacked by her ex. Both flee to Rockton, a town of two hundred deep in the Yukon Territory to the purpose made for people like Casey and Diana to hide out in at $5000 a head. The crotchety local sheriff Duncan doesn’t want either one of them in his jurisdiction but people are going missing and being murdered and he needs Casey’s expert help in figuring out what’s going on. A mysterious Council governs all, sexy deputy Will is coming on strong, the local shrink is also a madam, and no one is quite what he or she seems. In the meantime, there are monsters in the woods and possibly more right in town. A fun read.
A dossier on a 550-year European cold snap compiled from tree rings, ice cores, and the accounts of country clergymen and gentlemen scientists. Do we make the weather, or does it make us?
Because the Arctic ice pack receded during the preceding Medieval Warm Period, Fagan writes, the Vikings invaded Europe from England to Tuscany and even Constantinople. Because the Arctic ice pack receded the Atlantic cod moved north and provided a food source for regular trips to Greenland, which the Vikings then colonized. Because the Arctic ice pack receded the Basques were able to cross the Atlantic to find the rich fishing grounds off the Newfoundland Banks.
When the Arctic ice pack returned with the beginnings of the Little Ice Age in 1300, the trips ceased and the colonies died out or were absorbed by the Native population. Drought in the middle of the Little Ice Age caused Spanish settlers to move their colony from South Carolina to Florida, which as Fagan puts it “may help explain why most people in the southeastern United States speak English rather than Spanish.”
There is no study Fagan does not exploit in his exploration of his topic, including a delightful analysis by American meteorologist Hans Neuberger, who looked at 12,000 landscape paintings in museums in the US and Europe, painted between 1400-1967, to study the clouds in the skies of the paintings and to make some estimate of current weather conditions thereby.
His statistical analysis revealed a slow increase in cloudiness between the beginning of the fifteenth and the mid-sixteenth centuries, followed by a sudden jump in cloud cover.
Curious scientists have the most fun.
In 1800, at the end of the Little Ice Age and the beginning of the industrial revolution, the population of the planet was one billion. Today it’s 7.4 billion and we’re all burning fossil fuels to heat our homes, power our generators, drive to work and fly somewhere on vacation. It’s impossible for me to look at those figures and think that we are having no effect on climate, but as Fagan’s book reminds us, we are only exacerbating a global weather shift that has happened before and continues now. Fagan writes
Slow cyclical changes in the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit and in the tilt and orientation of its spin axis have constantly changed patterns of evaporation and rainfall and the intensity of the passing seasons over the past 730,000 years. As a result, the world has shifted constantly between extreme cold and short warmer periods.
So maybe we should stop fighting over whether it’s happening and start working on how we can adapt to it.