Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly, Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2016. 368 pp., $27.99 (hardbound). ISBN 9780062363596
Given the tremendous military power of the United States in the early twenty-first century and the technical sophistication of the military aircraft, the ways things were decades ago is generally unappreciated. At the start of World War II, like all other aspects of military preparedness, the American aeronautics industry was barely existent. There was a clear need for more and better aircraft, and one of the key skills that was needed was the ability to process numbers.
At this time before the existence of the electronic computer, the term “computer” was generally used to refer to humans that crunched numbers. Most of the time they were female. Yet, this was not a job that required only the ability to punch the right buttons on a calculator, many of the operations required knowledge of advanced mathematics, and people with those skills were in short supply. In the desperate search for talent wherever it could be found, some extremely capable African-American women were recruited. They worked in Hampton, Virginia and at the time that area was subject to strict segregation.
This book follows the lives of four of the women as they started work in World War II and kept working all through the fifties and sixties, playing key roles in the development of new aircraft after the war as well as in the American space program that eventually reached the moon. The four women were Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden and their experiences with segregation on and off the job.
It is a fascinating book, for it is simultaneously a chronicle of the American war effort and how society changed through greater opportunities as well as a history of the American aeronautic and space program. There is little in the way of mathematics, this is a story of their lives, not the mathematics that they worked on.
To explain how key these women were to the success of the American space effort, all that is needed is one anecdote. In 1962, electronic computers were new and astronaut John Glenn was preparing to be the first American to orbit the Earth. His orbital trajectory had been computed by an IBM 7090 computer, yet he did not trust the results and if they were wrong, he most likely would not survive the flight. Therefore, Glenn uttered what should be one of the most famous phrases of the space program, “Get the girl to check the numbers.” He added that if she says the number are good, then he was ready to go.
The person that Glenn was referring to was Katherine Johnson and Glenn, along with everyone else, trusted her. She ran the numbers and they checked out, Glenn was satisfied and his flight was historic. While other events in the space program are not quite so engaging, these women made a difference in the American war and space efforts. They were also wives, mothers and community volunteers, doing all of it while being forced to follow a code that claimed their inferiority. It is a great story of great achievement.