Hidden Figures

  • by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Narrated by Robin Miles
  • 10 hrs and 47 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as "human computers" used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.
Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South's segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America's aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam's call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia's Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley's all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA's greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives - and their country's future.

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What the Critics Say

"Robin Miles narrates the true story of four black women whose work as mathematicians helped break the sound barrier, and set the stage for space exploration.... Miles warmly profiles these hard-working women and their significant contributions to a field still dominated by white men.... Miles's inflections, rhythm, and pace move the story forward in a fascinating timeline of events." (AudioFile)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Great Story of a History Obscured

I live in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where NASA's JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is hidden at the top of the Arroyo Seco. Riding the Metro Gold Line east to historic Monrovia from Los Angeles' lovingly maintained Art Deco/Mission Revival style Union Station, you'd never guess the gleaming light rail tracks cross and recross secret washes and gullies where the engines that would take people to the moon and beyond were tested.

NASA didn't just hide its rockets - it hid its people, too, and across the country. "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (2016) is an exploration of Black women in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, 1915 - 1958) and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), especially at Langley Air Force Base.

Langley is by Hampton and Newport News, Virginia. Jim Crow laws - the so-called state law "separate but equal" laws - were in force for the entirety of NACA. Langley followed state laws, which meant that highly educated and talented women from then Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) were calculating ballistic trajectories during World War II - and then eating lunch in the "Colored" area. Black women calculators were absolutely crucial to the war effort, but couldn't use the same bathrooms as their White colleagues. Margot Lee Shetterly's writing is so empathetic that I felt the burn of anger that super human computer Katherine Johnson and her coworkers felt.

I love that the book has such a thorough discussion of actual segregation, and the key role that Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993) had in ending it. When the US Supreme Court abolished separate Black schools in Brown v Board of Education (1954) 347 US 483, some school districts in Virginia closed for years rather than integrate - which meant that some children, Black and White, were denied years of schooling. Just the logistics of being a working mother without child care must have been daunting. Shetterly reminds us that Brown and the forced integration in Little Rock, AR, were not the end of educational discrimination - they were the beginning of an end that hasn't happened yet.

Shetterly's book is pretty good on the social issues, but I found it hard to follow the women's lives. The book jumped from topic to topic and different eras. There's such a great discussion of Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha that when I came across their booth at my daughter's college fair this week, I was awed. AKA didn't come up until the last part of the book, even though it was part of the women's lives from the beginning.

I was disappointed the physics and chemistry of flight, missiles, rocketry and space exploration weren't well explained. Shetterly lightly addresses what human calculators did. Nathalia Holt's "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon" (2016), the story of women computers at Southern California's JPL, has a great discussion of the science. The difference might be because "Hidden Figures" was optioned and filmed as a major motion picture before it was published as a book. The book was released September 6, 2016; and the movie is being released either at Christmas, 2016 or January 13, 2017 - after this review was written.

Even though I found parts of the book a little meandering and lacking in depth, I'm giving the book and audible performance my highest rating and recommendation. It's a great story, and one that deserves a listen.

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- Cynthia "Always moving. Always listening. Always learning. "After all this time?" "Always.""

Phenomenal True Story

Who said women are not able to do mathematics? They should read this book. A while back I read “Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars” by Nathalia Holt. I found the book fascinating. When I saw the book “Hidden Figures”, I just had to read it. Both these books tell the story of women mathematicians. “Rise of the Rocket Girls” takes place at Cal Tech./NASA in California and “Hidden Figures” takes place at NACA/NASA facility in Langley, VA. The women in “Hidden Figures” are all black.

In the days before electronic or even mechanical computers existed, the calculations where done by hand. This work was exacting, intense and labor-intensive also it was poorly paid. The job description was computer or calculator and it was done by women. Prior to World War II one of the biggest employers of human calculators/computers was The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It was the predecessor of NASA. NACA did research work on engine cowls and airfoils requiring many engineers and mathematicians. When WWII began the need for these mathematicians exploded. The job was only open to women; soon they had to recruit college-educated black women into the position.

This book tells of the experience of these women at the Langley, VA facility which was in the segregated south. Some of these brilliant black women earned the job title of engineers. Shetterly’s story goes from the 1930s to the 1960s and includes the story of their role in John Glenn’s Mercury Mission.

The book is well written and meticulously researched. I found this book to be inspiring and uplifting. The story is fascinating and makes me wonder where are the young women in STEM education and jobs today. This book is a must read for all high school girls black or white. I understand this book is being made into a movie.

Robin Miles does an excellent job narrating the book. Miles is a veteran Broadway actress and multi-award winning audiobook narrator.
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- Jean "I am an avid eclectic reader."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-06-2016
  • Publisher: HarperAudio