In Praise of Unsung Heroes

Rocket GirlsA major problem with studying history is you have to dig to get the real story.  So much gets left out of the standard history books.

One of my favorite examples is Rosalind Franklin, whose pioneering work in X-ray crystallography enabled James Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleague Maurice Wilkins to discover the structure of DNA, thus winning the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962.   Unfortunately, Rosalind’s work is frequently overlooked because only three people can share a Nobel Prize, and she had died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 37.

Today I found another one. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Space Age was starting before there was a Computer Age.  The new Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed computing power to calculate rocket velocities and trajectories.  Surprisingly, the math whizzes they recruited were all young ladies.  They were known as “human computers” and they really made space exploration possible.

The only reason I know this is because there is a new book out, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt.  It’s another of those chapters of history that would’ve been lost without a dedicated author. (


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