Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Can you imagine a time without computers? These women mathematicians were human computers that wore skirts. They were first utilized at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during World War II. Many continued on and even more joined when the US got itself into the space race. When NACA was superseded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) their roles were more important than ever. Among these human computers were a group of exceptional African-American women who had to make their way in a man's world during Jim Crow era Virginia. This group was known at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory as the "West Computing Group." Follow the intertwined stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and many more from World War II to the end of the space race and beyond.

In Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly weaves the history of these hidden women with a look at some milestones from NACA and NASA, in addition to a wonderful narrative about living in Jim Crow era Hampton, Virginia. It is amazing what the women of the West Computing Group were able to overcome and accomplish. All of these highly educated and brilliant women are excellent role models for girls (and women) today. Even though they were dedicated to their work of getting a man in space, they also cared very much about their families and helped create a community. Shetterly was able to make them all come alive on the page. Even though some tough topics are covered (race, civil rights, and women's rights), they were done effortlessly and intertwined to create a compelling narrative. This is a must read.

You can read the papers they authored at the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS).

You can find Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly on the VBPL Catalog. If you enjoyed Hidden Figures, you may want to try Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt or Headstrong by Rachel Swaby.

Review by Michelle L. Chrzanowski, NASA's Scientific and Technical Information Program

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