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“Hidden Figures“ and its Princeton connection

A critical and box office success, “Hidden Figures” is hot off of an impressive awards season — during which it won 28 out of its 72 total nominations — and a run at Princeton Garden Theatre, where it was a USG “Movie of the Week,” in addition to being screened by the computer science department and the Carl A. Fields Center. 

“Hidden Figures” details the story of African-American female mathematicians, particularly Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked at NASA during the ‘60s. The movie features the contributions these women made to the space program, especially their work in making John Glenn the first American to orbit the United States in space.


However, the film’s Princeton connection runs much deeper. Blogger Steve Hiltner found out that former University mathematics professor Oswald Veblen played an important role in the mathematical lineage of the main character of “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson. Veblen served as a mentor or advisor to individuals whose work would eventually influence Johnson's doctoral work.

Although not a household name today, Veblen is perhaps one of the most significant figures in the history of the University’s mathematics department. The son of a mathematics and physics professor, Veblen was born in Iowa and received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Iowa and Harvard University before completing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. At the suggestion of Dean of the Faculty Henry Burchard Fine, Class of 1880, University President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, brought Veblen to the University, where he served as one of the very first preceptors.

Veblen boasted an impressive career in the fields of geometry and topology, which provided insight both into the theory of relativity and the early computers used by Johnson and her colleagues. He also had a leadership role in the University’s department and in the wider mathematics community. He served as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1923 to 1924 and created a community-centered design for Fine Hall, which is now Jones Hall. As the first professor in the Institute for Advanced Study, founded in 1932, he recruited many Jewish academics — including Albert Einstein — who were fleeing Nazi Germany.

He also made early attempts to bring black professors to the University, one of many ways in which his story intersected with Johnson’s. Johnson was educated at West Virginia State College by Professor William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, who is notable for being the third African-American to ever receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. While Claytor was not taught by Veblen, Veblen did offer him a post at the University in the 1930s before being thwarted by the University’s policy of segregation. Later, Veblen offered Claytor a position at the Institute for Advanced Study, which did not exclude people of color, but Claytor declined.

Despite the fact that they did not work together, however, Claytor may still have been influenced by some of Veblen's ideas and practices. According to the Mathematics Genealogy Project, which uses the abstracts of mathematics papers to determine the links of mentorship between mathematicians, Claytor’s mentor was John Robert Kline, who was advised by Robert Lee Moore, who, as a student at the University of Chicago, was mentored by Veblen.

Veblen’s work had far-reaching consequences both on modern physics and early computing; he was a supporter of the World War II-era ENIAC electronic digital computer, which was initially operated and programmed by women, such as character Dorothy Vaughan from “Hidden Figures.”

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