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Book Review: Hidden Figures

The book chronicles the true story about the genius and tenacity of a team of African American women mathematicians who helped NASA soar.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   23-02-2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, published by Harper Collins.

We'd do well to put Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures into the hands of young men and women who love science. Shetterly's book is about a team of African-American women with a knack for numbers. They defied gender and race barriers in the early years of the US space program to problem-solve for NASA. They crunched numbers and were called human “computers.” They calculated the complex trajectories, launch windows and back-up return paths for flights that allowed astronauts like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shephard and John Glenn to travel to space safely.

There are interesting accounts of a heavily reinforced glass ceiling at NASA and its occasional, wafer-thin cracks in "Hidden Figures." Shetterly writes, “Women...had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.”


Doing the Math

These underpaid African American women employees were blatantly overworked. But they loved their work. They defied low expectations based on gender and race with composure to scale great heights. Shetterly's book which shot to No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list is now a blockbuster Hollywood movie. The audience pleaser about the 1960s Space Race is competing for best picture this year at the Academy Awards.

Shetterly doesn't play the austere historian in “Hidden Figures” so the book brims with anecdotes which serves the movie adaption well. We learn that when American astronaut John Glenn was minutes from being blasted into orbit aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, there was just one person he trusted with the complex trajectory calculations required to bring him down safely from his orbital spaceflight: Katherine Johnson, who was something of a child prodigy in mathematics and worked in NASA’s segregated West area computers division.

“Get the girl, check the numbers,” Glenn said before boarding the rocket writes Shetterly in the book. “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”

Johnson was one of four female African-American mathematicians known as the “computers in skirts” who worked on the Redstone, Mercury and Apollo space programmes for NASA. Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interlaced accounts of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes.


Empowering Future Generations

While these women did the same work as their white counterparts, they were paid far less and started their careers by being relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. The book chronicles their brilliant work over three decades which eventually earned them slow advancement.

In 2015, physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson who calculated the trajectories for many NASA missions received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former US President Barack Obama. She calculated Alan Shepard's launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. In 1969, she also contributed to the legendary Apollo 11 mission, in particular to the safe return of the astronauts to Earth after Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. In those decades, it inevitably fell on Johnson to plot complex back-up navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures.

In "Hidden Figures" we then meet the larger-than-life mathematician and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan who became a passionate leader and advocate for the "West Computers." In 1948, she became NASA's first black supervisor and an expert FORTRAN programmer. She later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division, a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of second-generation mathematicians and aeronautic engineers such as Christine Darden.

Mary Jackson's own path to an engineering career at the NASA was far from direct. She graduated with dual degrees in math and physical science and worked in the computing pool, reporting to the group’s supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. After two years in the computing pool, she got the chance to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the new-fangled Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Czarnecki offered Mary hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility, and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Trainees had to take advanced engineering after-work courses held at then-segregated Hampton High School. Jackson who never balked at a challenge, petitioned a judge to allow her to join her white peers in the classroom. Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.  

Shetterly's pain staking work offers up a crucial slice of NASA history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. The author moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history. This story is nothing short of inspiring and enlightening for science buffs.


Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.



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