“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

hiddenfiguresHidden Figures is the extraordinary true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations, prior to computers, facilitated some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

This eye-opening story shows that 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 figure the math and trajectories that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space, and more importantly bring them safely home.

What is astounding about this account is that, not only was this accomplished by humans rather than computers, but they were female and black in a time when significant roles for females, let alone blacks, were limited. Hidden Figures follows the interlaced accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, some of the sharpest minds of their generation. Formerly consigned to teaching math in segregated public schools of the South, opportunity came during the labor shortages of World War II – anyone with the smarts, regardless of skin color or sex, were sorely needed in America’s aeronautics industry. Eagerly, these heretofore unnoticed mathematical masterminds answered their country’s call, moving to Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.

The story moves from World War II through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, these women helped America achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Space Race. For over three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

A movie was made from the book staring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner; it was released on Christmas Day, 2016.

Katherine Johnson, one of the women featured in the book and film, is still living. She was awarded the Presidential medal of freedom in 2015. She was born before the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, and she grew up going to segregated schools.

The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1969 where she knew many of the women she later wrote about in her debut book. Her father worked as a research scientist at NASA-Langley Research Center, and her mother was an English professor at Hampton University. In 2013, Shetterly founded The Human Computer Project, an organization whose mission is to archive the work of all of the women who worked as computers and mathematicians in the early days of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 6. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 1 for a discussion of Hidden Figures at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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