Thursday, February 23, 2017

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Hidden Figures for a local book club. I was in the minority for having finished the book. Most of the ladies went to see the movie. I gave the book five stars for the importance of the subject, new information shared, and for the author's extensive research. As a reading experience, I rated the book three stars; I did not have an emotional connection that compelled me to read on.

I appreciate the author's bringing these women to public attention. I liked how their story is presented in the context of the prevailing racial attitudes of their time.

The book is not a biography of a few women, as in the movie. It is a study in culture.

The bulk of the book covers the massive need for computers--mathematicians--during WWII, offering women and people of color unique job opportunities working for NACA. There were at least 50 black women who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory between 1943 and 1980. President Roosevelt signed an executive order to desegregate the defense industry, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

The African American women hired as computers were not only qualified, some had more education than their white counterparts. Their job opportunities and salary level had been limited, and landing a job at Langley allowed brilliant minds work equal to their ability. The women were dedicated, their high standards apparent in their dress and demeanor as well as in the excellence of their work. The high quality of their work brought respect from the engineers. At the same time, Virginia's segregation laws restricted the women to where they could live and what bathroom they could use.

The later part of the book covers the change of the NACA to NASA and the Space Race. I found it more compelling to read. The technology was changing to computers and the mathematicians had to retool their skills to keep up with the times.

My favorite story was about John Glenn's 1962 flight and how Glenn didn't trust computers to get him safely back to Earth; he said, "Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the number are good, I'm ready to go." He trusted Kathryn Johnson, the human computer.


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