Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

hidden figures

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One Response to “Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly”

  1. Brynna K. Says:

    Hidden Figures follows the lives and careers of the African American women who worked at NASA’s precursor: the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. The narrative begins in the midst of WWII, when schoolteacher Dorothy Vaughan applies for a summer job at NACA’s Langley Research Center as a computer. She becomes a member of West Computing, the group of black computers who process the engineers’ data through the necessary formulas. The aerospace industry booms, and Dorothy and the other women continue to crunch numbers at Langley long after the war ends. A talented young woman by the name of Katherine Goble arrives at NACA– which is now working to break the speed of sound– years after Dorothy, and is quickly positioned as computer to an engineering group. She is still with this group when the Soviet Union sends the world’s first satellite orbiting around the Earth. The United States is spurred into action to match the scientific abilities of its Russian rivals, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics changes to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to meet the country’s demands. Though Langley is no longer the organization’s center, its engineers and mathematicians work tirelessly to send Americans into space. Katherine receives special recognition as the one tasked with double checking the trajectory calculations for the first manned trip to the moon. After the Apollo missions, the space age dies down, but the achievements of African American women continue to shape their nation.

    One line in Hidden Figures stood out to me in particular: “the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.” Shetterly was talking about Katherine’s son’s victory in the local race as the first black winner, but this phrase can be applied to so much more. Yes, a black woman can be a computer, or a supervisor, or a mathematician, or an engineer, and once the first one has done so, it paves the way for others in the future. This optimism is one of the most compelling aspects of Hidden Figures. It examines the serious topics of racism and sexism and the obstacles they present, and then proceeds to describe the overcoming of these obstacles and the resulting success. Shetterly successfully blends social themes with cultural and scientific ones. She captures everything from the overall fast-paced atmosphere of WWII and the space race to the technical nuances of designing an airplane. Though I may have described the book more along the lines of a story, it really is a work of nonfiction, full with names and facts and dates. It’s simply that Shetterly makes it flow in such a way that the reader can follow the progression of ideas along with time. The mostly-linear organization surely helps.

    Recommendations: For readers who enjoyed this book, I would recommend Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for a similar mixture of history, culture, and science and Jason Reynold’s and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys for its examination of race.

    Rating: 4 stars

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