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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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From School Library Journal
“Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff”, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history . . . Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories (Boston Globe)
“Restoring the truth about individuals who were at once black, women and astounding mathematicians, in a world that was constructed to stymie them at every step, is no easy task. Shetterly does it with the depth and detail of a skilled historian and the narrative aplomb of a masterful storyteller.” (Bookreporter.com)
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Generally, the book is a very fast-paced and interesting read about the black women who worked at the Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, and their many and varied contributions to the field of aeronautical and astronautical research. It is part biography, part history of NASA, part history of segregation, part history of the civil rights movement, part history of the Virginia peninsula, and part history of women's rights. It is absolutely fascinating.
That being said, the book is very different from the movie, so don't go into it expecting them to be the same. The movie is deeply touching, but it is actually fairly inaccurate, and it has been pretty aggressively whitewashed (see re: the Kevin Costner character). I think it is good to both see the movie and read the book, because one of the critical differences, and the difference that I think is missed entirely by the movie (to its great detriment) is the way in which issues of segregation were actually tackled at Langley. The movie makes it appear that enlightened white men of power were responsible for Langley's integration, when in fact the integration of Langley was almost entirely borne organically and of necessity. The book does a good job of explaining this, whereas that aspect of the movie is almost entirely fictionalized. I thought the movie took away some of the women's victories in this area (Katherine Johnson, for example, never went to the "colored" bathroom. She just used the regular, unlabeled bathroom, and no one ever told her not to), but the book gives the women more credit for their small yet trailblazing acts of defiance.
One other note: the book actually covers quite a bit of complex scientific detail, but it is entirely readable to the layperson.
I highly, highly recommend this book.
I appreciate the author's bringing these women to public attention. I liked how their story is presented in the context of the prevailing racial attitudes of their time.
The book is not a biography of a few women, as in the movie. It is a study in culture.
The bulk of the book covers the massive need for computers--mathematicians--during WWII, offering women and people of color unique job opportunities working for NACA. There were at least 50 black women who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory between 1943 and 1980. President Roosevelt signed an executive order to desegregate the defense industry, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
The African American women hired as computers were not only qualified, some had more education than their white counterparts. Their job opportunities and salary level had been limited, and landing a job at Langley allowed brilliant minds work equal to their ability. The women were dedicated, their high standards apparent in their dress and demeanor as well as in the excellence of their work. The high quality of their work brought respect from the engineers. At the same time, Virginia's segregation laws restricted the women to where they could live and what bathroom they could use.
The later part of the book covers the change of the NACA to NASA and the Space Race. I found it more compelling to read. The technology was changing to computers and the mathematicians had to retool their skills to keep up with the times.
My favorite story was about John Glenn's 1962 flight and how Glenn didn't trust computers to get him safely back to Earth; he said, "Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the number are good, I'm ready to go." He trusted Kathryn Johnson, the human computer.
Top international reviews
The first and most obvious, is the lack of any illustrations or photographs. It would have added significantly to the impact of the book to see photographs of the key individuals described in the book and also the buildings and laboratories/test equipment they were using. Many such photos exist as a quick check via Google shows. On a personal level, I would have enjoyed seeing some examples of the types of maths that were being used. I can understand this not being included in the main text but could have been included as an appendix.
There are two major themes carried in the writing, one being the difficulties and damage caused by segregation, the other being the emergence of NASA and the US space program. Hence, it is probably inevitable that book is written primarily for US readership. That is not meant as criticism, only as an observation. In practice, for readers outside the US, it may mean resorting to Google to find out about individuals referred to in the book but are not well known outside the US. As an example, I can cite the mention of Althea Gibson: an apt but not obvious choice as a sportsperson.
I found the balance tilted more towards the discussion of segregation than the technical and scientific aspects . In places, the description of the cruelties and loss inflicted by segregation became a little repetitive. But it could also be argued some issues bear repeating. On the other hand, as a child, I recall listening to discussions about how the US overtook the USSR as it was then because of its mastery of the orbital mechanics required for spacecraft rendezvous. I was hoping to learn more about the role Katherine Johnson played in this development. In the film of the same name, there was a scene which seemed to indicate she had played a/the key role in mastering the maths involved but there was scant mention in the book. The book did refer to Mrs.Johnson's calculations in the launches of the early Mercury astronauts and, later, Apollo 11 and 13. But, I'm still wondering if she led the refinement and application of the maths involved in space rendezvous.
Two, minor themes of the book were the male - female and the engineer versus non-engineer biases at NACA and later NASA. The former was (and may probably still be) true of most working environments at that time. As for engineers: it's not just in the aerospace industry that engineers consider themselves to be first among equals. That being said, as a non-engineer who worked with engineers of different flavours (electrical, mechanical and chemical) at different times, I find them to be an uncommonly well qualified and knowledgeable cadre. In any working environment, someone has to lead and in a technology-led domain like aerospace, it's inevitable that engineers take charge. I can point to the decline of several large corporations when the engineers who founded the company were replaced by bureaucrats and bean-counters.
But these are mainly personal observations about a fine book which I have recommended to several friends and my family. The book is well written and carefully researched as attested by the long list of notes and the bibliography.
The book is a little hard to read at first because of the vast cast of characters, but it's well worth persevering. It is a brilliant account of character, politics and ability, breaking stereotypes as it goes. If you are interested in men in space, in the history of science, in black women's lives, in women in science or just in finding how much of the film was factual ( almost all of it, but not in quite the same way it happened; they moved parts around to create a filmable story) Read This Book. I learned a great from it and it is life enhancing to see how strong the characters of black women can be. I feel chastened, and am clearly undereducated in life, in ways these women were not.
The book, however, covers a much greater expanse of time and shows the many difficulties that black, bright women had to overcome to be able to be so useful to the Jet plane and space exploration developments. The book is full of detail - perhaps a little too much in parts for a man brought up in the UK to fully appreciate - but is really inspirational as it covers this important period of social and scientific progress. Once my wife has finished it, I hope to pass it on to our granddaughter who is currently at GCSE level; I think it will be educational in quite a few different ways.
look at Jesse Owens for example, look at what Rosa Parks did for her race! what did these ladies do that was so special, they were allowed to use their brain unlike so many others.
I do not even know if they just operated a computer with set equations, meticulous and very important work or did they actually work as mathematicians, pure theory etc? this is not clear.
a great pity, I feel the author has done her subjects no favours but it is good to know that these ladies were instrumental, as were white women, also discriminated against at this time in history, in the space race!
really did not like the bit about everyone in the department helping with the bombing of Japan, I am glad it was not me or mine who helped in that!
sorry, must get the film!
A good complement to the film released around the same time the book fills in details of other relevant, interesting things leading up to and happening at the time that the film cannot dwell on. One example I remember that the book goes into in some details is the utterly biased education system based on race and the 'feet dragging' / 'intimidation' that went on against those that tried to change things (for example: any school that implements the federal directive to de-segregate will be closed).
Racism is still endemic, black women in the US and UK still do not have equal pay, and a black female MP in the UK recieves as much abuse *by herself* as the rest of her colleagues combined.
Hidden Figures is therefore an extremely necessary history. It is vital that black women can see thselvws written into the history of STEM, that they can see their role models in the history of scientific achievement.
Equally, the women of the West Computing Group deserve to be written into history with no less accolades than their white and male peers.
This book should form part of all 20tj venture history syllabi and is both impeccably referenced and easy to read.
The book is great, but very different from the film. In the early chapters, there is the sense that, having done an enormous amount of research for the book, the author feels she needs to include every detail she's discovered, which leads to long, tangential sections of background. This could have been cut significantly without materially affecting the narrative (indeed, after a while, I just started skipping though some of these sections). Once the author settles into telling the major biographies, the book really finds its stride and is an enjoyable and informative read.