A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Hidden Figures is a tremendous pun. It means the women who worked for NASA from the 1940s to send people into space and back again. It also means the numbers that got them there, that translated the laws of physics into weight and design and mass and fuel. And, hidden at the back, it means the people who were not white who did this work alongside the visible whites: all figures, hidden from view by the still astonishing fact of US and specifically Virginian racist laws. Shetterly’s book is not just about the historical figures Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, played with commanding aplomb by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae in the eponymous film (2016). It’s about the men too, and many other women, who weren’t white but who were nonetheless brilliant American mathematicians and engineers, whom NASA gave the very rare chance of a professional, world-class career. They left their high-school jobs teaching maths – the best occupation they could hope for under the segregation laws – and moved to NASA’s laboratories from all over the USA to send rockets into space instead.
The book tells multiple stories (whereas the film focuses on only three), and gives possibly far too much information about velocities and trajectories and ‘number stuff’. I do like a science drama, but my eyes glaze over at the sight of an algorithm. I have no opinion on whether the maths is good or bad in Hidden Figures, and there is undoubtedly just the right amount of it, but I don’t understand a digit. The film focuses on character story instead, squeezing the book’s main characters and several institutions into a single timeframe and very little time: the real Dorothy Vaughan took decades to make supervisor, not a few years. There is also some up-scaling romanticising in the film version: Katherine Goble’s second husband was not a lieutenant-colonel, but a caretaker. The Al Harrison and Vivien Michael characters seem to be invented composites, but John Glenn is just as good a person in the history as he is in the film. There is no point in getting picky with the alterations because the spirit of Shetterly’s book is resoundingly upheld by the film’s plot and characters. I only hope that the real-life mathematicians had clothes as fabulous to wear as those worn in the film.
Shetterly does write flowery: as if she felt she had to dunk her maths and physics in magazine-standard purplish prose that gets annoying after several chapters (though this is perhaps how mass-market North American non-fiction has to be written these days). Hidden Figures is a good history of a complex and under-explored period of science and engineering. It’s also a fascinating social history of middle-class America restricted by segregation (see also Margo Jefferson’s Negroland for more on this subject). The science in Hidden Figures is dense, but the social history is tremendous, and worth reading to catch up on the parts that the film missed out.
Kate reviews other books at katemacdonald.net, many of them involving rockets and space.