Calculating Women

Despite the collaborative nature of science, for too much of its history the work of women and scientists of color was exploited and unacknowledged.

Priyamvada Natarajan in the New York Review of Books:

Natarajan_1-052517After a precisely calculated and perfectly executed voyage, the Mars Orbiter Mission reached its destination on September 24, 2014. The Indian Space Research Organisation, which oversaw the mission, had succeeded in doing what Russia, the United States, China, and Japan had failed to do: send an unmanned probe into orbit around Mars on the first attempt. The project’s success captured headlines worldwide, and a photograph of the cheering women on the administrative staff in the operations control room went viral on the Internet. Subsequently, articles about the female scientists and engineers who were central to the success of the project were widely published.

Perhaps never before had the participation of women in a space mission been so visible, even though women had been making fundamental computational contributions to astronomy and aeronautics for well over a century. Three recent books—Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (which has also been turned into an Oscar-nominated film), and Nathalia Holt’s The Rise of the Rocket Girls—show some of what they accomplished.

In the late nineteenth century, the term “computer” referred not to a machine but to a person who took measurements, graphed data, and made calculations that helped interpret information and predict results. Although computing was considered mechanical and menial, it was a necessary task that required precision and patience. Before the invention of the modern digital computer, it was crucial to the advance of science and technology. Computers were often women, who could be paid less than men and could work during wartime. Despite the integral part they played in establishing the US as a leader in modern astrophysics and space exploration, their work has remained largely unknown.

More here.