An attempt to share some Katherine Johnson’s math ideas from Hidden Figures with my son

For the last few months I’ve been daydreaming about ways to share some of the math from the movie Hidden Figures with kids. As part of that prep work I found one of Katherine Johnson’s technical papers on NASA’s website:

NASA’s Technical Note D-233 by T. H. Skopinski and Katherine G. Johnson

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of trig, calculus and spherical geometry. I like finding ways to share the work that mathematicians do with kids, but this work is pretty technical and I wasn’t getting any great ideas.

Then my son had a homework problem from his Precalculus book that made me think it was time to stop daydreaming and just try something. Here is that problem, which is a completely standard law of cosines problem:

The problem reminded me of one of the equations for an ellipse used in the Technical Note. One surprising thing is that the equation of an ellipse in polar coordinates is that is is a rational function in \cos{\theta}.

So, I drew an ellipse and showed my son that equation.

One of the neat things about the Technical Note is that the solution to some of the complicated trig equations were found by an iteration method. The specific ideas for solving those equations are too advanced for kids, so I decided to show my son a different (and really simple) iteration method that converges to a well known number:

After that introduction to iteration methods, I decided to jump to a second and slightly more complicated example -> solving x = 3*x*(1 – x).

The ideas in the iteration method we use here can be explored purely geometrically:

Next we went upstairs to the computer to see some of the ideas we just talked about. The first idea was the polar coordinate equation for an ellipse:

Now we played with the second dynamical system -> solving x = 3*x(1-x).

By the way, the ideas here are incredibly fun to explore (especially seeing when this method converges and when it doesn’t), but the details of this method wasn’t really the idea here. I just wanted to show him what an iterative method looks like.

Finally, I showed him the actual paper and pointed out some of the parts we explored. Sorry that this film didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped, but you can view the paper from the first link in this post:

This was a fun project – even if it wasn’t planned really well. Showing some of the math behind Hidden Figures I hope helps motivate some of the topics that my son is studying right now. It will be fun to return to a second Hidden Figures project when he is studying calculus.

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