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OU Graduate Makes Sure “Hidden Figures” Math Adds Up

Feb 15, 2017

 

The movie Hidden Figures is about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - African American women who worked as “human computers” for NASA in the early days of the space race. They helped launch John Glenn into orbit and played a role in the moon landing.

Math is all over the place in the movie. In this scene, Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, calculates where Glenn’s spacecraft will land when he returns to Earth.

 

To make sure the movie’s math adds up, 20th Century Fox hired Morehouse College applied mathematics professor and University of Oklahoma graduate Rudy Horne. He worked with the film’s stars, especially Henson, on learning pieces of equations. He encouraged her to think of the equations - both written and spoken - like memorizing lines in a script.

“Any math that she wrote on the board, I was responsible for training her to write said math on the board,” Horne said. “My other task was primarily to check that the mathematics on the blackboards in the background scenes and in note books was consistent with the things that NASA did at the time.”

Horne played a small role in shaping the script. He helped director Theodore Melfi settle on using Euler’s method to solve a particular problem in a scene in which Johnson figures out how to calculate the trajectory to bring John Glenn back to earth.

“He really liked that concept,” Horne said. “I didn't expect him to, but he actually put that into the script.”

In many scenes, characters show a sense of excitement about math. It’s one of the things Horne wanted to get across to the movie makers.

“As a mathematician, trust me, I'm very happy when certain problems work out. A lot of times you're working on a problem, and you're kind of relying on faith that you will find a solution. An answer will exist,” Horne said. “I definitely tried to convey that sense to the people on the set.”

When the movie studio approached Horne to work on a movie about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, he had never heard of the three women.

“After I heard their history and then I went online and looked for more information for myself, I felt kind of ashamed that I didn't know these people were, especially myself being African-American,” Horne said.

Rudy Horne grew up on the south side of Chicago. In high school, he figured out that he really liked calculus, and then he studied at the University of Oklahoma between 1986 and 1991, double-majoring in math and physics. He went on to get his PhD and now teaches at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

As a mathematician and an African American, he says it’s heartwarming to see these women receive recognition on the big screen, and he’s proud to have played a part in it.

“I had a student here at Morehouse who came up to me and mentioned that after he had seen the film it really inspired him to want to do mathematics,” Horne said. “If the film does that, if it helps get more women in science, it gets more African Americans, or for that matter more people - whether an African-American, white, Hispanic whatever. If it gets more people involved in math and science and STEM fields, that's a great thing.”

Horne doesn’t make an appearance in the film. But he did leave his mark. His handwriting is all over a chalkboard in an early scene as a young Katherine Johnson solves a quadratic equation.

 

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