Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

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

Book - 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.
Publisher: New York, NY :, William Morrow,, [2016]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2016
ISBN: 9780062363596
006236359X
9780062363602
Characteristics: xviii, 346 pages ; 24 cm

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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."

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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.

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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!

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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.

SCL_Justin Jul 12, 2017

In Hidden Figures Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the West Computers, starting from the WW2 days when computers meant people who did math, up to the Apollo 7 mission. It was a story I hadn’t heard before, not like the women of Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi codes in WW2 (though I suppose even the Bletchley story isn’t something I grew up hearing).

The story is interesting and Shetterly tells it well, though it does meander through a few people’s stories, meaning it doesn’t have a person to hang the story on (I imagine the movie version was more focused than the book is). It felt a bit like a lot of anecdotes plus authorial interjections about how meaningful that was.

One thing I wanted a lot more of was what exactly these women did. I wanted to see some math, instead of just taking the author’s word that they were doing very smart things. I kind of got the impression that Shetterly didn’t trust her audience to actually find the math interesting, and that put a bit of an interpretive distance between the text and me. It also felt a bit like a model-minority narrative, but that’s less about the book than about the decision to write this specific book, so whatever. Also, the military-industrial-complex rah rah ing (look how much these scientists had to do with the B-29 that delivered death to millions of people) was something that raised my hackles.

But in all, it was good.

PimaLib_NormS Jun 21, 2017

The first sentence of the epilogue of Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” is: “It’s the question that comes up most often when I tell people about the black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA: Why haven’t I heard this story before?” That is exactly what I was thinking as I read this book. It is truly an amazing story. During World War II, many women entered the work force to replace the men who went off to fight. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) desperately needed computers, not the electronic kind (it was the 1940’s after all), but the human kind. They had to figure out the complex, mathematical equations required to help the engineers build the fastest, most powerful and maneuverable aircraft. Winning the air war was crucial to the Allies plan for victory. This work took place in Virginia where segregation was still legal, but NACA realized that exigent circumstances demanded the best and the brightest, no matter the skin color or gender. The work did not end with WWII, as the Cold War with the Russians kept them all very busy. In 1958 NACA became NASA as focus shifted to the burgeoning space race with the Russians. These women were vital cogs in the vast machine that won WWII, fought the Cold War, and put men on the moon and brought them back safely. That this story did not become widely known until now is really unfathomable. These brilliant, brave women were double pioneers. They trailblazed the way for women and African-Americans.

g
ghreads
Jun 17, 2017

This story covers the history of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA and its precursor NACA in Langley, Virginia. The story begins in 1943 when the aeronautics industry in the US ramped up for World War II and concludes with the 1969 Apollo 11 landing on the moon, describing the contributions these women made to these projects. The epilogue gives a brief summary of the lives of the heroines since 1969.

The book highlights the stories of four of these mathematicians, describing their personal lives and professional accomplishments against a background of racial segregation and prejudice. What these women achieved in the circumstances in which they lived and worked is truly astonishing.

The review and synopsis below by Sandra Perkins (June 5) is excellent.

The writing is excellent and the interweaving of social history, personal story, and scientific history is well-done. Some of the scientific technicalities were a bit over my head but that did not detract from the overall story. As a retired computer programmer, I enjoyed the descriptions of the transition from human computers to electronic ones.

There are a lot of characters in the book in addition to the four central women and I sometimes found it difficult to remember who they all were. There is an index, which was useful for referring back, but I would have liked a short glossary summarizing who was who. Some pictures of the women would also have been an interesting addition.

I saw the movie before reading the book. The movie covers only the period in the early 1960s leading up to John Glen’s earth orbit. Some of the details in the movie, especially the social relationships among the four lead characters, are different than in the book but the movie captures the essence of the story.

The book is well worth reading – an inspiring story of the triumph of perseverance, talent and intelligence over adversity and negativity. It reminds us that we are all human and all have a contribution to make and that we must create a society that allows everyone to flourish without placing unnecessary obstacles in the way.

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j
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.
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“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.

j
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.
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“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.

j
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

j
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.
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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.
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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.

j
jimg2000
May 08, 2017

Two vehicles and 238,900 miles: three days there and three days back. Twenty-one hours on the surface of the Moon for two astronauts in the lunar lander, while the service module circled the heavenly body in a parking orbit. Katherine knew better than anyone that if the trajectory of the parked service module was even slightly off, when the astronauts ended their lunar exploration and piloted their space buggy back up from the Moon’s surface, the two vehicles might not meet up. The command service module was the astronauts’ bus—their only bus—back to Earth: the lander would ferry the astronauts to the waiting service module and then be discarded. If the two vehicles’ orbits didn’t coincide, the two in the lander would be stranded forever in the vacuum of space.

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s
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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