Wednesday, March 15, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly

Virginia is a Southern state that fought integration to the point of closing schools after Brown v. Board of Education.  And yet, many talented African-Americans found work as scientists and engineers at Langley Research Center, which later became part of NASA, as early as the 1940s.  The federal government recruited black female mathematicians to work as human computers while there was a shortage of available men during WWII.  By now everyone knows about the movie that this book inspired, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.  The book addresses civil rights and segregated bathrooms and even a little civil disobedience regarding a cafeteria sign instructing black employees where to sit.  The author does a very thorough job here, recounting numerous events in the lives of several women, both inside and outside the workplace, but I had some difficulty keeping up with who was working in what department.  I found many of the personal stories fascinating, especially the achievement of Mary Jackson’s son as a soapbox derby participant, John Glenn’s faith in Katherine Johnson’s work, and Dorothy Vaughan’s willingness to work away from her husband and children for a year.  Also, I have a technical background, so that I know what double integrals and differential equations are, and I admire these women tremendously for their scientific accomplishments, as well as their courage and success as pioneers in breaking down gender and race barriers.  However, I found this book to be quite dry.  I am not a big non-fiction reader, although I have enjoyed works by Michael Lewis, Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Malcolm Gladwell.   The writing is very clear and informative, but this book does not read like a novel.  In fact, as one friend noted, it reads like a dissertation that has been reworked for publication.  Nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be told, and kudos to Ms. Shetterly for bringing these women’s lives to our attention. 

No comments: