book review: Hidden Figures

A while ago I came across a link to a trailer for a movie coming out in January. Before it ended I was at my library website placing a hold for the book that inspired this film, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. That hold was recently filled and I spent the Thanksgiving weekend reading about these remarkable women. It was very nice to read this title after remarkable women such as Dr Sally Ride (2013, posthumously), Margaret H. Hamilton (2016), Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (2016, posthumously) and of course Katherine Johnson (2015) each receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barak Obama.

Book cover for Hidden FiguresHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly

Computers once walked among us; no not androids, mathematicians who worked tirelessly to solve complex calculations that helped, among other advancements, put man on the moon. We don’t hear about these computers here in the United States for a variety of reasons, not least because they were women, and often they weren’t white. It was the men who were the scientists, the engineers, the individuals in seats of power. Without these women, the men would never had been able to make their achievements.

In Hidden Figures Shetterly shares the stories of the remarkable group of female mathematicians who had to overcome even higher hurdles due to the color of their skin. We meet Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. The West Computing group was a remarkable one and I think it was a bit of mixed pride for Vaughan when her computers were so good that the groups that had taken them for special projects weren’t keen to return them to the general pool. Hidden Figures skillfully navigates the challenges of discussing physics and maths, the complex history of the civil rights era in Virginia, and providing a glimpse into the lives of these remarkable women.

My only complaint is that stories such as these have taken so long to come into the mainstream consciousness and show up in libraries. I wish I could send a copy of this book to my 7th grade self who had to prove to her school’s administration that she could indeed excel and thrive in the advanced maths course. Why? It shows women succeeding while climbing over every obstacle in their way. It shows the need to keep pushing and pursuing the next step forward, never settling. Shetterly put together a great resource as I am not as well-read on this area of history as I should be.

I highly recommended Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.