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Looking back at black mathematics pioneers part 1

ON SCREEN: Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures

David Blackwell

In 1965, David Blackwell became the first African-American to be admitted into the US National Academy of Sciences, a society of the most distin- guished scientists in America. The son of a railroad worker, his academic achievements where thwart with various struggles against racial prejudice.

Despite earning a PhD at the University of Illinois in 1941, at the age of 22, Blackwell was barred from studying and working at many different uni- versities in the US. Eventually, Blackwell become a statistics professor at the University of California Berkeley, and by the age of 40 had written numerous papers, books and was invited to events across the world as a guest speaker.


The professor specialised in game theory, becoming an expert on the duellist’s dilemma, where two opponents approach each other with loaded pistols and must decide on the best moment to fire.

The game theory was of keen interest to the military during the Cold War. David Blackwell had a famous theory in advanced statistics named after him: the Rao-Blackwell-Kolmogorov theorem; a means of improving the efficiency of initial estimators.

In 1979, Blackwell won the John von Neumann Theory Prize, for individuals who have made fundamental, sustained contributions to theory in operations, research and the management sciences.

Ernest Wilkins Junior

Ernest Wilkins Junior was a contemporary of David Black- well and was described in national newspapers of the United States during the 1940s as “the Negro genius.” Wilkins entered the University of Chicago for his prowess in math- ematics at the of 13, receiving a B.S by the age of 16.

Three years later, Wilkins was also awarded a PhD for a thesis in Calculus of Variations.
Despite the African American’s prodigious mathematical talent, his main interest was in the applications of the subject, which led him to make significant contributions to mechanical and nuclear engineering.

Wilkins served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), and was renowned for his work on radiation shielding, developing mod- els by which the amount of gamma radiation absorbed by a given material can be calculated. He made significant contributions to early nuclear reactor designs and the development of optical instruments for space exploration.

In 1999, Wilkins became the distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Clark-Atlanta University.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a space scientist and mathematician who worked on the Redstone, Mercury and Apollo space programmes for NASA. Johnson worked on many famous missions, such as the first American flight into space, the moon landings, and also the infamous Apollo 13 flight, where her calculations meant that the crew were able to return safely to earth after an oxygen tank exploded.

In 1962, when astronaut John Glenn was about to board the rocket that would orbit the earth for the first time, he said: “Get the girl (Katherine Johnson), to check the numbers.
“If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”

Johnson was the one person Glenn trusted with the complex trajectory calculations required to bring him down safely from his orbital space-flight. As an African-American woman in the 1950s, it was unheard of to be engaged in mathematical research for NASA.

The only way she obtained this role was by fighting through the courts to join courses that would allow her to be admitted to the NASA programme. After being temporarily assigned to an all-male flight research team, she was employed as a vital member of the team, because of her prodigious talents.

In January 2017, a film called Hidden Figures was released about the work of Katherine Johnson and other African-Americans at NASA, who changed the face of a white male profession.

Kathleen Okikiolu

Kathleen Okikiolu is a renowned research mathematician who has won many prestigious awards. One of the highlights of kikiolu’s career was becoming the first black person to receive the Sloan Research Fellowship, an award in recognition of her academic performance and potential to make a substantial contribution to the field of mathematics.

As an indication of the importance of the award, 43 former Sloan Fellows have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, and 16 Sloan Fellows have gone on to win the Fields Medical, which is the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Okikiolu layed the foundation of her career by completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Cambridge and then studying for a PhD at the University of California, in Los Angeles.

The mathematics genius also received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for both her mathematical research and her development of mathematics curricula for inner-city school children. Okikiolu is from a highly mathematical family, her Nigerian father George Okikiolu also being a research mathematician, who is thought to have written more mathematical papers than any other African citizen.

The academic is currently a professor of mathematics at John Hopkins University in the US, where her research includes studying elliptical determinants and the properties of different dimensions in space.

Read part two of Looking back at black mathematics pioneers Friday 10 November at 7pm.

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