The Science Behind Jack BlackMay 6, 2021
Have you heard of Judith Love Cohen? How about Jack Black? Either of these people could be household names depending on your social circle, but do you know the connection between the two? No, it’s not some odd coincidence or six degrees of separation situation. Cohen, an accomplished aerospace engineer who was responsible for helping save the astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission, just so happens to be Jack Black’s mom.
While this information wasn’t necessarily a secret, it did not become widely known in mainstream society until very recently. On April 24th, Reddit user holyfruits posted in the “Today I Learned” subreddit, “TIL Judith Love Cohen, who helped create the Abort-Guidance System which rescued the Apollo 13 astronauts, went to work on the day she was in labor. She took a printout of a problem she was working on to the hospital. She called her boss and said she finished the problem and gave birth to Jack Black.” 1
The viral post garnered more than 100,000 upvotes and a comment section filled with surprised and delighted users sharing jokes and banter.1 The idea of such a prominent scientific figure being the mother of an actor known for comedy and goofy antics is quite the juxtaposition. Admittedly, many people familiar with Black’s work did not know who Cohen was, and it’s undeniable that the former gets far more popular culture coverage. But despite her lack of traditional celebrity status, Cohen was an extremely influential scientist whose achievements deserve just as much attention as her celebrity son.
An aerospace engineer, feminist author, and dancer, Cohen lived a vibrant life. She began her career journey in Brooklyn, where she attended engineering school while concurrently dancing for the Corps de Ballet of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company.3 After meeting first husband Bernard Siegel, the two made the big move to California where Cohen finished her studies in electrical engineering up to the master’s level at the University of Southern California.3
Cohen held a variety of high-profile aerospace engineering jobs such as creating the guidance computer for the Minuteman missile, working on the Hubble telescope and Pioneer satellite, and most famously, helping to create the Abort Guidance System, which was responsible for bringing the astronauts on the doomed Apollo 13 mission home safely.2
Cohen was so passionate and dedicated to her work that she let absolutely nothing get in the way of getting things done. According to her son Neil Siegel, she went into the office just hours before Jack Black was born. “When it was time to go to the hospital, she took with her a computer printout of the problem she was working on. Later that day, she called her boss and told him that she had solved the problem. And . . . oh, yes, the baby was born, too,” wrote Siegel in an obituary for Cohen.3
During the span of her scientific career, Cohen also fiercely advocated for women’s rights within the workplace. She helped establish policies such as posting job listings internally within companies to allow everyone a chance to apply, as well as requiring positions to have formal job descriptions.3
After retiring from engineering, Cohen, a lifelong feminist, began writing books encouraging young girls to explore careers in male-dominated fields like engineering, astronomy and architecture. She enthusiastically hosted hundreds of book signings and educational talks where she further promoted her message of inclusion.3
These are just some highlights of the extraordinary life that Judith Love Cohen lived until her passing in 2016. She made huge strides for both the aerospace industry and for women’s equality, both of which would not be where they are today without Cohen’s contributions. While comical that many laypeople in this generation now know of her through a Reddit post about her son being Jack Black, Cohen’s impact will remain in the scientific spotlight forever.
holyfruits (2021, April 24.) TIL Judith Love Cohen(…)[Online forum post]. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/mxsdzu/til_judith_love_cohen_who_helped_create_the/
Kottke, J. (2019, May 14). Meet aerospace engineer JUDITH Love cohen. Retrieved May 03, 2021, from https://kottke.org/19/05/meet-aerospace-engineer-judith-love-cohen
Siegel, N. (2016, July 29). In memory of JUDITH Love Cohen: Mother, WIFE, Friend, Author, Engineer. Retrieved May 05, 2021, from https://viterbi.usc.edu/news/news/2016/obituary-judith-love-cohen-neil-siegel-usc-viterbi-engineering-women.htm