Several months ago I came across the “Dr. Becky” YouTube channel. I enjoy her monthly “Night Sky News” — which encouraged me to dust off my old telescope — and her enthusiastic and frequently humorous explanations of the goings on in the universe.
Recently Dr. Becky, or more properly Dr. Becky Smethurst, astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, noted that if you Google “famous physicists,” you will get a long list of scientists, but only one woman on the list. She also noted that in a recent European survey, 25% of the people asked couldn’t name a single woman scientist.
“That’s not representative of the world we live in. But unfortunately it probably reflects the average general public’s reflection of who does physics,” Dr. Becky said. Then, referring to the survey and Google, she noted, “By far the most popular answer was Marie Curie, a double Nobel prize winner in both physics and chemistry and famous for her work on radioactivity. But apparently beyond Marie Curie, even Google is hard-pressed to name another female physicist.”
She then proceeded on to her top 10 list of famous women astrophysicists. To my surprise, one of her top ten is not too far from Kingsport, Dr. Gladys West.
West, who is Black, was born Gladys Mae Brown in Sutherland, Virginia, south of Richmond. Looking to make a better life for herself, she worked hard on her education.
“I was told by my teachers that an education in math or science would lead to more opportunities if I chose it, so I did,” said West in an interview for All Hands, the magazine of the U.S. Navy.
West was the valedictorian of her high school and received a full scholarship to Virginia State University, a Black public school. It was there that she graduated in 1952 with a B.S. in mathematics. After teaching for a couple of years, she returned to earn her master’s in mathematics in 1955.
In 1956, West’s life took a major turn as she became the second Black woman ever hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground, (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), in Dahlgren, Virginia. She worked as a computer programmer and project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data. She also met her future husband, Ira West, who was also a mathematician at the facility.
While working at the Naval facility she used her math skills to model the orbit of satellites. She turned those same skills toward the planets in the 1960s and showed that Pluto’s orbit is tied to Neptune, a process know in celestial mechanics as orbital resonance.
In the 1970s, she turned her talents toward Earth, using satellite data and her mathematical skills to begin precisely determining the shape of the Earth. The Earth is not perfectly round but ellipsoid, bulging at the middle due to gravitational forces from the sun, moon and other bodies in the solar system.
Her work, and the data she put together, became the foundation for the Global Positioning System, or GPS, that we use in our cars, planes, trains, boats and phones today.
She continued to work on satellites and in 1978 was project manager for developing the first satellite capable of remotely sensing oceans. Then in 1986, she published the “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter.”
In 1998, West retired from Dahlgren after working there for 42 years. But she continued her education, completing a Ph.D in public administration from Virginia Tech.
In 2018, West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame, one of the highest honors bestowed by Air Force Space Command.
West was also honored by the commonwealth of Virginia with a resolution presented in the state Senate on Feb. 26, 2018. Near the end of that resolution was the following from her former employer: “The commanding officer of Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division hailed Gladys West for her integral role in developing GPS. And noted that her mathematical work had made a significant impact on the world.”
Dr. Gladys West, who broke through many barriers, both race and gender, to develop what we now know as GPS, still believes in the power of the mind over the machine — and continues to use a paper map when figuring out where she’s going.