By Frances Lamberts
A recent Associated Press article announced the death of “pioneering black mathematician Johnson.”
At a time when the precursor organization to NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – possessed only rudimentary computer-calculation capabilities, Katherine Johnson had computed, by hand, all the rocket trajectories for the agencies’ early space flights. A skeptical John Glenn, it noted, demanded that she “check the (computers) numbers” before he would embark on the first human-manned spacecraft flight around the earth, in 1962.
Upon Ms. Johnson’s passing, the NASA administrator acknowledged that milestones like the moon landing could not have been reached without her courage and extraordinary accomplishments as mathematician.
In “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” science writer Elizabeth Kolbert describes the contribution – to our understanding of climate change – of another giant in mathematics and science. A Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, had been aware of an earlier Irish scientist’s work on the heat absorption of some atmospheric gases, like carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane. Their trapping of outgoing heat would warm the earth surface, Ireland’s Tyndall thought, and Arrhenius set out to actually calculate this relationship.
Beginning on Christmas Day in 1894 and toiling on more than 10,000 paper-and-pencil calculations, 18 hours a day, he presented his conclusions to the Swedish Academy of Sciences a year later. He had concluded that, were the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled from its pre-industrial level, it would raise the world’s temperature by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.
The world is hotter now by approximately 1°C and extreme weather events are bearing down on us more often. As the world climate council’s 2018 report stated, we now must reduce the greenhouse gases rapidly and drastically, in just 30 years, if a global temperature increase beyond 1.5°, with yet more ferocious storms and other harsh effects, is to be avoided.
At the federal level, the U.S. military recognizes the risks to national security from climate change and is taking many steps to reduce them. But President Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the international climate effort and has overturned many initiatives toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He should reverse such policy steps.
At the time she retired, said the NASA administrator of Ms. Johnson, “she had mapped the moon’s surface ahead of the 1969 landing and helped astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 safely land back on earth.” Arrhenius and his successors can help us now to leave a climate-safe future for the young.