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Rudy L. Horne dies at 49; Chicago native checked the math in ‘Hidden Figures’

Taraji P. Henson, star of "Hidden Figures," with Rudy Horne, the Chicago native who was the math consultant for the movie. | Provided to the Sun-Times

Taraji P. Henson, star of "Hidden Figures," with Rudy Horne, the Chicago native who was the math consultant for the movie. | Provided to the Sun-Times

Rudy Horne used to be known for writing about subjects with titles like “Bright Discrete Solitons in Spatially Modulated DNLS Systems” and “Existence, Stability and Dynamics of Solitary Waves in Spinor Dynamical Lattices.”

That all changed on Christmas Day 2016, when “Hidden Figures” opened.

He was the math consultant for the hit movie about the African-American female mathematicians and “human computers” at NASA whose work brought success to the nation’s space program.

He received a film credit for his work preparing star Taraji Henson for her role as Katherine Johnson, whose orbital trajectory analysis ensured the safety of astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission, when he became the first American to orbit Earth. Mr. Horne helped the actors write out the long math calculations in the movie. That made him such a  “rock star” at gatherings of mathematicians that he’d be asked to sign autographs.

Mathematician Rudy Horne signing autographs at a Congressional Black Caucus Event. | Kimberly F. Sellers / Georgetown University

Mr. Horne, who was born in Englewood and graduated from Crete-Monee High School, died last month after surgery for a torn aorta in Atlanta, where he was a math professor at Morehouse College. He was 49.

“I want to acknowledge the passing of Rudy Horne, who was part of our team that brought the story of Katherine Johnson and the ‘Hidden Figures’ in the space program to the screen and let the world know of their accomplishments,” Henson said. “The movie was a blessing to all of us and shed light on a story hidden for far too long.”

Mr. Horne explained his role in an interview with KGOU radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Oklahoma City: “So any math that she wrote on the board, I was responsible for training her to write said math on the board. My other task was primarily to check that the mathematics on the blackboards in the background scenes and in notebooks was consistent with the things that NASA did at the time.”

When a young Johnson is shown doing math early in the movie, Mr. Horne said, it was actually his writing on the chalkboard.

Morehouse professor Rudy L. Horne discusses mathematician Katherine Johnson, an African-American leader in the early days of NASA’s space program. | Edray H. Goins / Purdue University

The professor did more than check the math. He provided a vintage concept — “Euler’s method” — that helped solve a problem in a pivotal moment in the movie, according to Mr. Horne and Duane Cooper, chair of the math department at Morehouse College, who recommended him to the filmmakers.

Mr. Horne even made sure the actors knew to pronounce “Euler’s” properly — as “Oilers.”

“So the director [Ted Melfi] is finishing the script, and he asked me to talk a little bit about the math so it could help him finish,” he told KGOU. “I had mentioned that the notion of solving the problem with Euler’s method was a good method for solving numerically differential equations, and he really liked that concept. And I didn’t expect him to, but he actually put that into the script.”

Young Rudy L. Horne “was a brainiac,” said his brother William. | Facebook

It’s a moment that makes math seem thrilling: Henson’s character and other scientists study a chalkboard, puzzling out how to get Glenn back safely. Suddenly, Henson’s character has it: “Euler’s method!”

“But that’s ancient,” another character says.

“But it works,” she responds. “It works numerically.”

Her boss, played by Kevin Costner, signs off with an emphatic, “That’s it.”

Young Rudy grew up near 79th and Hermitage and took swimming lessons at Foster Park at 83rd and Loomis. His father Rudy worked at a Sherwin-Williams plant, and his mother Carolyn helped operate a day care center, according to his younger brother William.

“Rudy was a brainiac,” his brother said. “He was like a Doogie Howser.”

“He was an avid comic book collector,” he said. “We have thousands of comic books from when he was a little boy. Anything that dealt with Marvel, DC, anything to do with Star Wars, Star Trek. Spock was his favorite. He used to try to do the Spock thing and put me to sleep all the time.”

The family eventually moved to University Park, and Rudy graduated from Crete-Monee High.

A 1989 photo of Rudy L. Horne (left) and Paul Beale, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. Beale was Mr. Horne’s mentor for an undergraduate physics project. | Provided photo

He went on to get double degrees in math and physics from the University of Oklahoma in 1991. At the University of Colorado, he earned a master’s in physics in 1994, a master’s in math in 1996 and his doctorate in applied mathematics in 2001.

The network of African-American math experts is a small circle within the circle of mathematicians. At all-male Morehouse, Cooper said the professor was a role model who sent the message, “You’re a brother with a brain, mathematics is great stuff, and you can do this.”

“Rudy Horne was a direct role model for African-American male students because they could see themselves as hardcore applied mathematicians and have fun while doing it,” said Talitha Washington, an associate professor at Howard and a program officer with the National Science Foundation.

After Mr. Horne’s death, actor Lidya Jewett, who played the young Johnson in the film, tweeted, “I just got an A- on my first Algebra 1 test. You told me from the math room on set I could do it. ” she said. “And now I really do it! RIP Mr. Rudy.”

Walking with him in downtown Boulder, his friend Sandra Castro, a senior researcher at the University of Colorado, remembered “having to stop at each block to say hello to one of his endless friends. . . .He was quite a rock-star teacher.”

“He had the gift of gab,” said Paul Beale, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder.  

Though laid-back and funny, he was “just a consummate egghead,” said John Adams, CFO of RainbowPUSH, which recognized him last year with an achievement award.

“I could always look to him and remember that such success in academics (particularly in STEM) is possible for a black man,” said Morehouse junior Kevin Womack.

Prior to Morehouse, the professor taught at Florida State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the California State University, East Bay.

Rudy L. Horne. | Facebook

He had hesitated about whether to work on “Hidden Figures” because he wasn’t sure he had the time, but once he signed on, he “had the time of his life,” Cooper said.

“It was a really cool experience,” Mr. Horne told interviewer CaT Bobino. “I won’t lie, the food is really good on the set.”

Mr. Horne enjoyed sushi and Ethiopian food and TV’s “Law and Order,” friends said, and loved the movie “Wonder Woman” and the “Batman” films featuring Christian Bale.

In addition to his mother and brother, he is survived by his sister Frances Harper.

Cooper said Morehouse is planning to commemorate his life on Feb. 16 — the opening day for a movie Mr. Horne had hoped to see, Marvel’s “Black Panther.”