REVIEWED: Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. (Science/Social History Book, 2016).

I was interested in seeing the acclaimed new movie based on this book before reading this. Now? Even more so! This exceptionally fine look at a fascinating (and till now mostly unknown to the general public) story of how much a group of female African-American mathematicians became key contributors to aeronautical development and later to the American space program.

Ever stop to consider the origin of the word “computer”? Before machines like the one this review is being written on came of age, that was the term for people skilled in advanced math who did complex calculations using comparatively simple mechanical devices. And during World War II, the government had the aeronautical industry churning out as many new warplanes and testing as many new, sometimes revolutionary new designs as possible in order to keep ahead of the Axis powers and win the war.

That meant a sudden need for far more of these “human computers” to assist in finding the best, safest and most reliable new planes–and by both experimentation and calculations, improve existing designs. But with so many men in uniform, a labor shortage developed. At Langley Laboratories–in profoundly, stubbornly segregated Virginia–a government testing operation desperate for brains began hiring white and later black female mathematicians for these vitally important jobs.

Women of both races faced a struggle to gain acceptance in a male-dominated field. But the “Colored Girls” faced the added burdens and humiliations imposed by legal segregation, the outright hatefulness of the bigoted. Yet they carried on, making profoundly important contributions to the war effort. Despite the array of barriers and frequent frustrations, they kept working. They not only gained the respect of the male engineers they worked with, but several of the most skilled and ambitious earned their way to positions of leadership and authority, some even joining those once-doubtful men as full-fledged scientists and engineers.

These women continued working in the post-war era which quickly morphed into the Cold War, and which in turn soon gave birth to a frenzied Space Race sustained by the United States’ bitter rivalry with the USSR. By the time John Glenn was about to become the first American to truly orbit the Earth, the massive rumbling mechanical computers that were the distant ancestors of my handy laptop had entered service–but brilliant women like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Christine Darden and perhaps most of all Katherine Johnson still contributed to what was now called NASA’s success. For they had known enough to change with the times and now, as computer programmers, they ran the great machines. In fact, as the non-living computers were still barely out of their infancy, Glenn insisted that Johnson laboriously double-check the vacuum-tubed monsters’ calculations of his course before he would agree to take his pioneering flight!

More calculations–a blending of the talents of Johnson and people like her with number-crunching power of the ever-improving machines–allowed for NASA to send men to the moon and get them back safely. And the author here (daughter of two NASA-connected scientists and a native of the town that plays host to the Langley Facility) does a fine job, documenting these extraordinary yet perfectly normal women’s lives, both in and out of the lab. Shetterly masterfully puts int all in context with the social forces they faced and struggled to overcome, and relates how it all connects to the social and political history of the US itself, from the 1940s on into the ’80s.

A thoroughly engaging, stirring and honest book–very, very highly recommended!

 

 

 

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