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The #1 New York Times bestseller
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 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.
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 they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country's future.
Margot Lee Shetterly was born in Hampton, Virginia in 1969. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce. After college she worked in investment banking for several years. Her other career moves have included working in the media industry for the website Volume .com, publishing an English language magazine, Inside Mexico; marketing consultant in the Mexican tourism industry; and writing. Hidden Figures is her first book, a New York Times Bestseller and was optioned for a feature film.
(Bowker Author Biography)
Publisher's Weekly Review
Shetterly, founder of the Human Computer Project, passionately brings to light the important and little-known story of the black women mathematicians hired to work as computers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's precursor). The first women NACA brought on took advantage of a WWII opportunity to work in a segregated section of Langley, doing the calculations necessary to support the projects of white male engineers. Shetterly writes of these women as core contributors to American success in the midst of a cultural "collision between race, gender, science, and war," teasing out how the personal and professional are intimately related. She celebrates the skills of mathematicians such as Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Hoover, whose brilliant work eventually earned them slow advancement but never equal footing. Shetterly collects much of her material directly from those who were there, using personal anecdotes to illuminate the larger forces at play. Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights. A star-studded feature film based on Shetterly's book is due out in late 2016. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
New York Review of Books Review
i love to discuss science, especially mathematics and physics, in their most abstract forms, far removed from mundane human concerns. I love to riff on the origin of the universe, black holes, space and time. By contrast, I am not at all happy to discuss gender, which is not remoteiy my area of expertise. My feeling: Let me get on with what I do well, and let others get on with what they do well. Two illuminating recent books manage to convey a similar sentiment, focused on the uninhibited love of science and math, while still gracefully incorporating the thorny topic of women in science. "The Glass Universe," by Dava Sobel, recounts the previously neglected history of the women astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory near the turn of the 20th century, while "Hidden Figures," by Margot Lee Shetterly, does justice to the African-American women mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the mid20th century. I was only a little bit more familiar with the history in "The Glass Universe." Here's the (inaccurate) version I learned: Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 to 1919, hired a gaggle of women, known fondly as Pickering's Harem. Pickering was fed up with the incompetence of his "computers," the common parlance for humans who computed, in this case, crunching the numbers to arrive at astronomical calculations. In frustration, he supposedly shouted to his all-male computers, "My Scotch maid could do a better job." Now maybe the phrasing is impolitic, but that was the version going around. So he fired all the male computers and hired his Scottish maid, Williamina Fleming, who indeed did a better job and for a fraction of the pay. Over time, this story, clearly apocryphal in places, has been sanitized. Reference to the expression "harem" is gradually deleted, as though cleansing the past with an antiseptic of the present is good policy. In the historically accurate version Dava Sobel tells in her careful and detailed style, the past is neither sanitized nor embellished. Guided by a historian's sacred principles, she lets the story emerge from the thorough research she documents. Sobel does not condemn or excuse or flatter or even analyze the characters. She does not interpret the past through the lens of the present. She barely interprets the past at all. Even her language emulates the phrasing of the sources, as though modernizing her account would distract readers, reminding them of the interloper who stands between them and sheer documentation. The result is a far more accurate telling, of course, and a much subtler one. Pickering is portrayed as an extremely fair character with great respect for his women computers and a lifelong investment in their success. He hired the Scottish émigré Williamina Fleming, a former teacher, as a maid after her husband abandoned her in a "delicate condition." Recognizing her capabilities, he reassigned her to help at the observatory. Eventually she oversaw the hiring of dozens of women who performed the astronomical calculations. Sobel explains, "While it would be unseemly, Pickering conceded, to subject a lady to the fatigue, not to mention the cold in winter, of telescope observing, women with a knack for figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did a credit to the profession." Though to be clear, some of the women defied the barrier of the observatory itself and determinedly spent cold, hard nights turning the metal dome, climbing ladders not meant for "ladies" and operating the telescopes. The work was at times physically toilsome and, it has to be admitted, brutally tedious for stretches of unthinkable duration. The first Ph.D.s in astronomy at Harvard went to women under Pickering's mentorship, and he fought for the advancement of all the women under his charge. Yet he did maintain unequal, gender-based pay conventions. We love to marvel at the paltry sums despite our inability to calibrate for inflation: 25 cents an hour. On this, Sobel includes a perfect passage from a journal in which Williamina Fleming airs apparently her single complaint about Director Pickering, for whom she clearly had warm sentiments. Fleming writes: "He seems to think that no work is too much or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women's salaries stand____Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts. And this is considered an enlightened age!" (Bear in mind that the entry was written before women secured the right to vote.) Her salary was $1,500 a year, in contrast with that of the male assistants, who had not been fired in the way I previously thought, but rather garnered $2,500 per year. And later, in frustration over the issue of her meager salary, she confesses, "I am told that my services are very valuable to the Observatory, but... I feel that my work cannot be of much account." Don't deride Pickering. He was generous, committed beyond professionalism, fair-minded and, in context, extremely open to progress. His feminism, if I can stretch the political boundaries of the term, was not theoretical. It's unclear if he could have imagined a woman transcending certain barriers. But when he saw talent and accomplishment, he simply recognized those qualities. He wanted to nourish ability, to see credit properly attributed and, above all else, thereby to advance astronomy. Science profited from the contributions of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne and Antonia Maury. They detected, classified and cataloged several hundred thousand stars and extrapolated crucial discoveries about our universe in the process. The significance of Leavitt's work, as an example, can be recognized in the results of a more publicly acclaimed astronomer. Edwin Hubble leveraged Leavitt's law on the behavior of variable stars to gauge distances to certain nebulae. He was then able to confidently conclude that some smudges in the sky were actually entire galaxies, thereby extending the geography of the universe to millions of light-years. We now ascertain that the observable universe exceeds 90 billion light-years across. There are, as should be expected, accounts - very interesting accounts - of a heavily reinforced glass ceiling and its occasional, wafer-thin cracks in "The Glass Universe" (did Dava Sobel intend this pun?), the title a reference to the tens of thousands of fragile photographic glass plates used to capture the stars that migrated across the mound of sky above the observatory. These underpaid women employees were blatantly overworked. But they loved their work. Astronomy was the subject they chose for themselves and their dedication, as conveyed in this book, was beyond reproach. They confronted scarlet fever, "grippe," deafness, loneliness and destitution. Still, they were tenacious, as is well represented in a quotation from Annie Jump Cannon: "May I be led into a useful, busy life. I am not afraid of work. I long for it." unlike sobel, Margot Lee Shetterly does not play the austere historian in "Hidden Figures." She is right there at the beginning with evocative memories of her childhood, visiting her father - an engijanna neer turned climate scientist - at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. Shetterly says, "As a child ... I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that's just what black folks did." She describes the African-American women computers, many of whom she knew, calculating orbital trajectories in the earliest days of NASA, just after the name had been changed from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA. In this story too, pay inequity shaped lives and families and inherited opportunities. Here too women's colleges played an important role, as did historically black colleges. Here too we hear the anticipated accounts - again no less outrageous or provocative for their inevitability - of bias and limits. There are the added humiliations of segregated schools and neighborhoods, designated dining tables and "colored" bathrooms, all colluding to tighten the shackles of racism. Still, neither book is motivated by bitterness. "Hidden Figures," which has also been adapted into a feature film that opens this month, is clearly fueled by pride and admiration, a tender account of genuine transcendence and camaraderie. The story warmly conveys the dignity and refinements of these women. They defied barriers for the privilege of offering their desperately needed technical abilities. Juxtapose the intellectual status of the women of NASA against the historical context, before the major advances of the civil rights movement, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The East Area Computing pool, which began hiring women in the 1930s, outgrew the space allocated as it expanded to include hundreds. The dozens of black women engineers and mathematicians (though most of the women were given lesser titles than their qualifications merited, such as "assistant" or "computer") received a separate room of clacking machines. They were the women of West Area Computing. Integration across gender and race began naturally as people worked together to solve the problems of aeronautics and space travel. Shetterly says, "Women... had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations." Yet they defied low expectations based on gender and race with composure. She says of the most famous West Area computer, Katherine Johnson: "She didn't close her eyes to the racism that existed; she knew just as well as any other black person the tax levied upon them because of their color. But she didn't feel it in the same way. She wished it away, willed it out of existence inasmuch as her daily life was concerned." Katherine Johnson was sent to the Flight Research Division at the pivotal moment that NASA turned to space travel. She performed the essential trajectory calculations that ensured John Glenn's successful boost into orbit by an Atlas rocket. She went on to contribute to the legendary Apollo 11 mission, in particular to the safe return of the astronauts to Earth. Throughout both books I was struck by the obviousness of the importance of work, either domestic or professional - the importance of contributing, of choosing a destiny, of being good at something, of participating in history, and the enraging pointlessness of small-minded repressions of a soaring and generous human urge. The women scientists of "The Glass Universe" and "Hidden Figures" were affected by external social pressures, and yes, that in turn created inevitable internal pressures. But they transcended those forces to commune with space, and thereby redefined themselves and those around them. The authors of these two fine books help us understand the socially transformative power of a defiant dedication to something greater than our mundane human predicament. levin, the Claire Tow professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, is the author of "Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space."
Library Journal Review
In this debut, Shetterly shines a much-needed light on the bright, talented, and wholly underappreciated geniuses of the institution that would become NASA. Called upon during the labor shortage of World War II, these women were asked to serve their country and put their previously overlooked skills to work-all while being segregated from their white coworkers. The author tells the compelling stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as they navigated mathematical equations, the space race, and the civil rights movement over three decades of brilliant computing and discoveries. The professional and private lives of the ladies of Langley Research Center are documented through an impassioned and clearly well-researched narrative. Readers will learn how integral these women were to American aeronautics and be saddened by the racism and sexism that kept them from deserved recognition. VERDICT Shetterly's highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. We'd do well to put this book into the hands of young women who have long since been told that there's no room for them at the scientific table. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/16; "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 27.]-Kate DiGirolomo, Library Journal © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.