Hidden Figures (the book)

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Margot Lee Shetterly. HarperCollins, 2016. 348 pages.

Margot Lee Shetterly writes that, when she was working on this book, people repeatedly asked her why they had never heard this story before. There is a related question that I find very disturbing. What if this book had never been written? If it had not been written, then it’s entirely possible that these stories would have been lost to American history. That would have been a great tragedy. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. The book was quickly followed by a movie with the same name, focusing on the story of Katherine Johnson.

I find this story fascinating for two reasons.

First there is the story of inequality and how hard some people have to struggle not only to develop the talent they were born with but also to find a way to have those talents recognized and put to use. Fiona Hill, whom Donald Trump called “the Russia bitch,” is a much more contemporary example. In Fiona Hill’s case, what held her back was the fact that she is a woman, and her provincial accent, which elites did not like. Katherine Johnson had even more obstacles to overcome. She was black, and her career began in the 1940s in a still-segregated United States.

Second there is the history of computers and how the history of computers ties in with the space race, the Cold War, the Apollo project, and the eventual creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This is the only book I’ve ever read that illustrates how numbers were crunched in the days before computers. Even before rockets, designing fast airplanes (including supersonic airplanes) required heavy number crunching. This work was done by teams of people with training in mathematics who did the computing work using mechanical calculators made by Monroe, Friden, and Marchant. These people were referred to as “computers.” I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that that’s why we call computers “computers” today. They were the machines that took the place of teams of human computers. The scientists and engineers who needed the early computers made by IBM were the same people who had relied on human teams of “computers.” They simply redirected the term.

Katherine Johnson died in 2020 at the age of 101. The author of this book of course interviewed Katherine Johnson, so the book includes her memories.

The stories of people such as Katherine Johnson and Fiona Hill are immensely inspiring. But there are two sides to that coin. Both Johnson and Hill earned their way up, but there also were lucky breaks and helpers along the way. That side of the coin is inspiring. But the other side is tragic. The tragedy is the many people — poor people without privilege — who never got the education they needed, never got a lucky break, and never had helpers. Hidden Figures and Fiona Hill’s There Is Nothing for You Here are powerful arguments for why all of us should join the struggle for equality of opportunity and economic and social justice. The right, including even the church, demonize the struggle for social justice and even have made an insult out of it — “social justice warrior.” This struggle is not over. Far from it.

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