In the fall of my sophomore year of college I registered for an honors physics class. I had to get permission to take an overload, and then shortly afterward I was too overwhelmed to manage it. I wound up dropping the class to carry the usual number of credits, thinking I'd pick it up again in another term. Elwood's best friend brought it up at a party shortly after the drop deadline. "I should have known a girl couldn't handle honors physics," he said unkindly. "I can handle honors physics," I told him. He was unconvinced, and unpleasant about his unconvinced-ness. After some back and forth I took hold of his shirt's collar, pulling it slightly away from his body. I took my plastic cup full of beer and poured the entire thing down the funnel I had created.
Gravity in action, baby.
Except at at the time I was not AT ALL flippant about it. I was so ashamed of myself. I had lost my cool; I had been rude to my boyfriend's best friend; I had confirmed his stereotype that women ("girls") were unpredictable and other.
In high school I thought I wanted to be an engineer. In my eighth-grade physical science textbook I read a sidebar of Newton's laws and -- this sounds implausible but it is true -- it was like a religious experience. They spoke to me of a God of order, of a fundamentally comprehensible world. It was as if a bright light had clicked on inside my head, and all that day I basked in its glow. I remember playing with numbers as a 13-year-old, wondering why squares were separated by consecutive odd numbers. When I got to high school I started competing with the math team, which was both joyful and terrifying. I hadn't known until then that I could be good at math.
In my memories of the beer-bath incident, there is an odd lacuna. I remember apologizing profusely. I have a vague memory of his saying something like, "Yeah, sorry I was rude." But I do not recall any apology for the sexism-- only for the failure to be politely sexist. It was not strange, in 1988, for a man to assert that my chromosomes left me incapable of taking honors physics. (P.S. I re-registered for honors physics two years later, when I was not carrying an overload. It went fine, TYVM.)
This is on my mind because I went to see Hidden Figures today. It made me cry an improbable number of times. I was also a girl from West Virginia who loved math and science in a world often skeptical of my capacity to handle math and science. And yet I only know one slice of the frustrations the movie describes. The racism is painful to see, but the women keep pushing back against it. It's exhausting and beautiful. I loved the glimpses of their families and their community, the things that sustain them in a workplace -- and a wider world -- where everyone in a position of power is white. (That Paul Stafford character? I should maybe not be trusted around him with a beer in hand, I'm just saying.)
There's a tense scene while John Glenn is in flight, and even though I knew how the story would end I was still biting my nails. John Glenn got to be considered a hero because he did something hard and uncertain. And also -- this part never dawned on me before today -- John Glenn got to be a hero because of an army of smart people, all striving to do something that had never been done before. It put me in mind of that prayer I love from St. Thomas Aquinas, the one that talks about God calling us out of the double darkness of sin and ignorance. This is one of the things I am most grateful for about the Catholic Church: her certainty that we can glorify God by dispelling ignorance. And oh-- when we do! When John Glenn soared above the earth I cried again, because it reminded me that human effort and determination can lead to glorious freedom. The movie makes it clear just how hard it was to put a person into space and bring him back again. The fruit of their brainpower and his bravery was that fantastic flight; their joint efforts allowed him to tread the high untrespassed sanctity of space.
It would have been so easy for the women in Hidden Figures to quit, but they persevered. I am still thinking about the laborious, repetitive nature of Katherine Johnson's work-- calculating and re-calculating trajectories by hand. Tomorrow morning I have some number-crunching at the top of my to-do list. I will sit down at my desk and fire up R and tell it to give me a batch of standardized residuals so I can see how well they perform in a different set of models. I am...a little weak in the knees at the prospect of doing that by hand, and yet Katherine Johnson spent her days immersed in much more complex equations. Coincidentally, this project has a racial justice focus. I am collaborating with someone whose research focuses specifically on the problem of over-identification of African-American kids as impaired, and their under-identification as gifted. We are looking at results for a tool that could help schools to get it right more often.
And so tomorrow as I sift through my models, I will remember those gifted girls who grew into gifted women. I will be grateful for the progress we've made since 1961, and grateful for the opportunity to work as a woman scientist in a department full of woman scientists, with a woman scientist as my boss. I do not know how much of an impact this work will have against the enormous ugly hydra of racism, but I will do my bit and hope for the best. Because I may never travel into space, but at its very best moments my work, too, allows me to put out my hand and touch the face of God.