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They were discriminated against by gender and race, but the story of these brilliant African-American women mathematicians is well told in Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.
As the daughter of a NASA scientist, Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in the community of NASA (originally known as NACA -National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) scientists from Langley Research Center. She grew up seeing African-American (the were openly called the Black Community at that time) women working as computers and mathematicians for government run research projects to develop the air planes as they are today and in space science.
It was only when she grew up and understood the profoundness of the contribution of these women in the US history of Space Science and that there were no documentation on these women. She therefore decided close the gap and created a narrative on these amazing working women – Hidden Figures.
The book mainly tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden – of NASA’s ingenious ‘human computers’ – who started their career in a much lower grade, with limited scope of development and a lower salary than others in NASA. But these brilliant women grew as mathematicians, supervisors, and engineers and made a lasting contribution to science.
Unfortunately women in science are still plagued by such discrimination. These four and many other African-American women from that time were instrumental in helping the USA reach new heights in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
The book provides very intense and engaging snapshots of how the daily life was like for these women in the research institute. The book focus on the scientific area these women were working in, the mind set of their co workers and the rules like separate toilets for colored women, separate office space and dining area for colored people. How the schools and colleges were different and thus inefficient for different races. How the social mixing of two races were limited although the black and white Americans worked shoulder to shoulder in calculating the right trajectory path for their first space program.
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The book will inspire women in science today in understanding the grit and persistence of these women in the 1950s and 60s. We take so many things for granted today, but we forget that they have come to us because of immense hard work and uncompromising passion of previous generations.
At a personal level, in spite of working in the field of science I found that the book was quite heavy on explaining the science it dealt with. There were times where the narrative stumbled while accounting for many parameters, all at once – social scenario, scientific developments, political issues like the cold war, the advent of first generation IBM computers, and the struggles of the African-American women at their work. I would have loved to read more of the conversation among these women. Accommodating so many aspects of one period in one book sometimes made the book dry and more like reading a news paper article.
In spite of all its glitches, Hidden Figures is a book to read. There is also a Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition that can be an inspiration for our children. I am glad the book is also made into a very popular motion picture. The untold history being told after all and retelling the fact that women always remained major contributors in Sciences, it is just that their stories were rarely told.
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