Black History Month 2020

October is Black History month so to celebrate I put up a display in my schools Mathematics Corridor. Here are seven important mathematicians and scientists who have defied

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a famous mathematician who earnt a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and French.

In 1953, she was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ and worked analysing data from flight tests.

In 1962, Johnson was asked by John Glenn to rerun the numbers and equations which were calculated by the computer because he wanted to check the programme was correct. His space flight was then successful.

In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. This is the highest civilian honour any American can be awarded.

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr.

Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. attended the University of Chicago at the age of 13 (in 1936) and was one of the youngest students to attend. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at 17 and earnt his PhD at 19.

Wilkins worked with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi to research methods into producing fissionable nuclear materials focusing on plutonium-239. Unfortunately, he did not fully know the purpose of his research until the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima.

In 1944, he worked on research with Eugene Wingner on neutron absorption which lead to the discovery of the Wigner-Wilkins approach to estimate the distribution of neutron energies within nuclear reactors.

He helped on the Manhattan project with a strong interest in the peaceful application of atomic energy.

In 1976, he became the president of the American Nuclear Society and later was the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, which is one of the highest honours an engineer can receive.

Dorothy Vanughan

Dorothy Vanughan was a mathematician who in 1943 worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory and was assigned to the segregated ‘West Area Computing Unit’. The West Computers contributed to most areas of research at Langley.

In 1949, Dorothy was promoted to become NACA’s first black supervisor and was one of the few female supervisors.

Later in 1958 when NACA transitioned to NASA she joined the Analysis and Computation Division which was one of the first integrated groups at NASA. She became an expert of the FORTRAN programme and contributed to the Scot Launch Vehicle Program.

In 1971, she retired from NASA.

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker owned a farm near Baltimore, USA and was largely self-educated in Astronomy and Mathematics.

He constructed a wooden clock which kept accurate time for more than 50 years and Banneker was able to accurately predict lunar and solar eclipses.

In 1791, Andrew Ellicott hire Banneker to help assist in surveying territory for the nation’s capital and worked in the observatory tent using a zenith sector to record movements of stars.

Between 1792-97, he published many Almanacs (annual calendars) which included astronomical calculations, opinion pieces, literature, medical and tidal information.

Benjamin wrote letters to Thomas Jefferson outlying his hypocrisy to enslave African Americans whilst they were fighting the British for independence. He also attached his Almanac to the letter.

Jefferson acknowledged his letter and, in his response, stated how he had sent Banneker’s Almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet.

Banneker gained widespread support of abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania for his views against slavery.

Katherine Adebola Okikiolu

Kate Okikiolu developed an interest for Mathematics in high school and in 1985 attended Newham College at the University of Cambridge and graduated with a Bachelors degree in Mathematics.

From here, she then studied in the United States to research for her doctorate and became an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and in 1974 she became a full-time professor.

In 1991 she gained her PhD for her thesis on The Analogue of the Strong Szego Limit Theorem on the Torus and the 3-Sphere.

From 1992-95 she worked as an assistant professor at Princeton University and produced two papers whilst here.

She became an assistant visiting professor at MIT from 1995 to 1997 and produced three joint papers with Victor Guillemin.

She joined the University of California at San Diego in 1997 as an associated professor where, during this time, she was awarded the Sloan Research Fellowship and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Throughout her time here she delivered many lectures and talks including three talks at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2011 she joined the Mathematics department at Johns Hopkins University, USA.

David Blackwell

David Blackwell was an American mathematician and statistician whom in 1935, age 16, attended the University of Illinois and graduated with a Bachelors degree, then a Masters and finally earnt a Doctorate.

Later, Blackwell took a position at Howard University which he described as being the “ambition of every black scholar” and after 3 years he became a full professor and became the Head of the Department of Mathematics.

In 1954, he left to take a position as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and in 1956 he became a chairman of the Statistics Department.

In 1965, he was elected to the National Academy of Science.

In 1979, he received the John von Neumann Theory Prize for his work on dynamic programming.

In 1986, Blackwell also earnt the R.A Fisher Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies.

Mamokgethi Phakeng

Mamokgethi Phakeng achieved a Bachelors degree in Pure Mathematics at the University of North-West, South Africa and a master degree in Mathematics Education at the University of Witwatersrand where in 2002 she became the first black female South African to obtain a PhD in Mathematics Education.

Phakeng became the first female president of the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa during 2002-2006. In 2007 she was elected a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa and in 2009 she became an honourary member of the Golden Key International Honour Society.

From 2011 to 2016 she became the first female president of the Convocation of the University of Wiwatersrand.

In 2014, the CEO Magazine named her Africa’s most influential female academic.

In 2016, the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa awarded her the prestigious Businesswoman of the Year Award in the education category.

On top of this, Mamokgethi has gained many awards such as the Doctor of Science from the University of Bristol and held the Mellon Award from 1998 to 2000.