Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Large Print - 2016
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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 a shot 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."-- adapted from publisher website.
Publisher: New York : Harper Luxe, 2016
Edition: First Harper Luxe edition
ISBN: 9780062466440
0062466445
Branch Call Number: 510.92 Le
Description: xxiv, 543 pages (large print) ; 23 cm

Opinion

From Library Staff

Selection for 02/28/2017

The inspiring story of the women mathematicians who helped contribute to the success of the Space Race, despite facing racism on a daily basis. We also own the film.

Selection for 2/16/2017

Subtitled: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The fascinating, true story was made into a film, which is also available from the library.

The almost unbelievable true story of three African American female mathematicians who helped launch the NASA space program in the 1960s. CRRL's February "Rappahannock Read" pick.


From the critics


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t
tjdickey
Feb 10, 2018

The story sparked an excellent film - African-American women whose skill at math and in the nascent field of computer science helped assure the success of the Apollo Program. The book gives a much more detailed account of the complete path-breaking careers of the women, from the dark days of WW2 to the moon landing, and spends a lot more time speaking directly to issues of discrimination and prejudice, and to the great moments when a decision was made, for instance, to appoint the first non-white woman as a section head, and another to an engineering position in the national research labs.
A self-proclaimed "first-time author with no background as a historian," Shetterly writes a piece that often carries us along like a novel.

p
pokano
Feb 10, 2018

The subject matter of this book, of course, gets a 5. The author should get great credit for bringing to public notice (not to mention Hollywood's) the heretofore largely unknown brave and intelligent black women whose mathematical and scientific careers were so instrumental in World War II and the space race. Yet I couldn't give this a higher rating because the style of writing did nothing for me. Perhaps it did for others. I wanted these women to come to life in the pages of the book, but sadly, they never did for me.

a
ayh
Nov 04, 2017

Interesting.

j
joecarson
Sep 20, 2017

Haven't read it yet. It's not quite available on hold for me at the library. but I'm more than willing to bet both the farm and the ranch that when they first applied, some racist jerk made the asinine comment "No thanks, we already have our cleaning women."

d
darcyhudjik
Sep 07, 2017

A fascinating book about the space race and the human "calculators" that were an integral part of it, along with the challenges they faced. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has seen the movie, is interested in civil rights, or the history of space travel.

j
jrhaasdyk1
Aug 25, 2017

The author did a superb job of researching and retelling the stories of these amazing women who took on the odds of their age simply to be allowed to contribute their exceptional talents for the sake of their country. It really brought home to me the issues of the civil rights movement and all the opposition women like these mathematicians faced. No, it wasn't an easy read, but it was completely worthwhile.

r
rmschultz
Aug 21, 2017

It's rare, but this time, the movie was so much better than the book. It was hard to follow the story of the 4 main characters in the book, there were so many tangent stories. I really, really wanted to like it more........ but it just didn't do it for me.

c
CMLibrary_gjd_0
Aug 17, 2017

After viewing this movie, I decided to read the book. I'm always suspect of Disney's "true stories". :) If you're afraid to read this because math's not your thing, think again. The author is not mathematician either, she just wants us to know about these ground breaking women she was exposed to as a child. So far it's been a terrific read!

What a wonderful revelation this book is! How great thinkers of all ilk could come together so effectively in the middle of terrible times in the State where this all took place is simply an amazing feat, certainly one we should all know about! The women (and some men) profiled in this book should be common knowledge to all and sundry. Pick up your copy today; also available as a book club kit. We have 3 kits, this would be a great read for teens and adults alike.

m
matcat44
Jul 21, 2017

Loved the movie, but found book too dry. Whoever wrote the screenplay did a great job.

d
darladoodles
Jul 20, 2017

I make it my usual practice to read the book and then see the movie. In this case I proceeded in the reverse and am really glad I did.

The movie did a great job of showing just how valuable these human computers/mathematicians were to the space program. I was amazed to have had absolutely no knowledge of the contribution these women made to the race for space.

The book, though often dry when covering aeronautical concepts, did a wonderful job of showing the length of time that women were working faithfully in NACA and NASA to pursue their love of math and space while giving their families a better lifestyle than they could have imagined when they themselves were growing up. The women featured in this book worked tirelessly to combat the discrimination against their race and sex. It was inspiring to see their stories in print.

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CMLibrary_gjd_0
Oct 05, 2017

pg 170; "Eighty percent of the world's population is colored" the NACA's chief legal council Paul Dembling had written in a 1956 file memo. "In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country."
do we never learn or what? gjd

pg 196 (re: Soapbox Derby) Harder than getting the message, perhaps was acting on it when you got it. Entering the derby was tantamount to believing you had a shot at victory, as much (or more) or the parents as for the racer. The electrified fence of segregation and the centuries of socks it delivered so effectively circumscribed the lives of American blacks that even after the current was turned off, the idea of climbing the fence inspired dread.

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

The speed of sound, about 761 miles per hour at sea level in dry air at 59 degrees Fahrenheit, varied depending on temperature, altitude, and humidity. It was long thought to be a physical limit on the maximum speed of an object moving through the air. As an airplane flying at sea level in dry air approached Mach 1, or 100 percent of the local speed of sound, air molecules in front of the flying plane piled up and compressed, forming a shock wave, the same phenomenon that caused the noise associated with the crack of a bull whip or the firing of a bullet. ... either the plane or the pilot or both would disintegrate from the force of the shock waves. But on October 14, 1947, pilot Chuck Yeager, flying over the Mojave Desert in an NACA-developed experimental research plane called the Bell X-1, pierced the sound barrier for the first time in history, a fact that was corroborated by the female computers on the ground ...

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production. The same evolutionary forces prevailed to replicate a particular model’s positive traits and breed out excess drag and instability. The P-51A Mustang was a good plane; the P-51B and P-51C were great planes. After several rounds of refinement in the Langley wind tunnels, the Mustang achieved its apotheosis with the P-51D.

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

There were black jobs, and there were good black jobs. Sorting in the laundry, making beds in white folks’ houses, stemming in the tobacco plant—those were black jobs. Owning a barbershop or a funeral home, working in the post office, or riding the rails as a Pullman porter— those were good black jobs. Teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer—now those were very good black jobs, bringing stability and the esteem that accompanied formal training.
===
“Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” were entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, Roosevelt said, addressing the American people in his 1941 State of the Union address.
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In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

Of course, while moving the air over the object was similar to flying through the air, it wasn’t identical, so one of the first concepts Dorothy had to master was the Reynolds number, a bit of mathematical jujitsu that measured how closely the performance of a wind tunnel came to mimicking actual flight. Mastery of the Reynolds number, and using that knowledge to build wind tunnels that successfully simulated real-world conditions, was the key to the NACA’s success. Running the tunnels during the war presented yet another logistical challenge, as the local power company rationed electricity. The NACA nuts ran their giant turbines into the wee hours if necessary, engineers pressing the machines for answers to their research questions like night owls on the hunt for mice. Residents who lived near Langley complained about the sleep-disrupting roar of the tunnels.

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

“Tu m’entends tout, n’est-ce pas?” the countess inquired, seeing the reserved Negro maid paying close attention to her every bon mot. Katherine nodded sheepishly.
===
“Katherine should finish the report,” Skopinski said to Pearson. “She’s done most of the work anyway.” Henry Pearson had the reputation of being less than supportive of the advancement of female employees, but whether it was circumstance, the triumph of hard work over bias, or an incorrectly deserved reputation, it was on his watch that Katherine put the finishing touches on her first research report on the Friday after Thanksgiving 1959. “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” went through ten months of editorial meetings, analysis, recommendations, and revisions before publication in September 1960—the first report to come out of Langley’s Aerospace Mechanics Division (or its predecessor, the Flight Research Division) by a female author.

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son’s achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.
===
Achievement through hard work, social progress through science, possibility through belief . . . when Levi reached out and took hold of the first-place trophy, Mary witnessed, in one proud and emotional moment, the embodiment of so much that she held dear.
===
Officially, the derby was the boy’s show, from building the car to crouching inside it on race day. Parents (usually fathers; Mary was one of the very rare derby moms) were supposed to stand back and offer only advice, but it was usually hard to tell who savored the engineering project more, the parent or the child.

j
jimg2000
May 08, 2017

The early 1960s were an inflection point in the history of computing, a dividing line between the time when computers were human and when they were inanimate, when a computing job was handed off to a room full of women sitting at desks topped with $500 mechanical calculating machines and when a computing job was processed by a room-sized computer that cost in excess of $1 million. Dorothy Vaughan was keenly aware of that undulating invisible line that separated the past from the future. At fifty years old and many years into her second career, she reinvented herself as a computer programmer. Engineers still made the pilgrimage to her desk, asking for her help with their computing. Now, instead of assigning the task to one of her girls, Dorothy made a date with the IBM 704 computer that occupied the better part of an entire room in the basement of Building 1268, the room cooled to polar temperatures to keep the machine’s vacuum tubes from overheating.

j
jimg2000
May 08, 2017

Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was the part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night.
===
As the rocket blasted from the launchpad and accelerated into the sky toward maximum velocity, the aerodynamic pressure on the capsule also increased to a point known as “max Q.” If the capsule wasn’t strong enough to withstand the forces acting on it at max Q, it could simply explode. A Republican senator from Pennsylvania called the Mercury capsule-Atlas rocket pairing “a Rube Goldberg device on top of a plumber’s nightmare.
===
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became in one fell swoop the first human in space and the first human to orbit Earth.

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jimg2000
May 08, 2017

“Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut. If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go.
===
The space age and television were coming into their own at the same time. NASA was acutely aware that the task before them wasn’t only about making history but also about making a myth, adding a gripping new chapter to the American narrative that worshiped hard work, ingenuity, and the triumph of democracy.
===
As a seasoned test pilot, Glenn knew that the only way to remove all danger from the mission was to never leave Earth.
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Everything rested upon the brain busters’ mastery of the laws of physics and mathematics. The mission was colossal in its scope, but it required both extreme precision and the utmost accuracy.

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blue_pig_1144
Sep 27, 2017

blue_pig_1144 thinks this title is suitable for 8 years and over

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shayshortt
Sep 29, 2016

The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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