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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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By Cynthia on 09-18-16
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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244 of 266 people found this review helpful
By Morgana on 10-09-16
I am a fifty-seven year old black woman who was raised during the sixties and seventies. My father taught his children to learn about their roots and to hold themselves with dignity. I attended classes on African history in High school, but until now the story of black female mathematicians was completely unknown to me.
This the story of young women of color who joined NACA before it became NASA in the war years. How they were called 'computers' who worked equations in order to bring about proper construction for airplanes such as the B-29 Super Fortress and many others.
That alone should be enough to draws in the listener, the sheer scope of what these women accomplished during the time of segregation is simply amazing.
Robin Miles reading gives the story an elegant air, the reader will not be disappointed.
232 of 255 people found this review helpful