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Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race Paperback – 9 February 2017
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A TIME Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2016
‘Clearly fueled by pride and admiration, a tender account of genuine transcendence and camaraderie.
The story warmly conveys the dignity and refinements of these women’ New York Times Book Review
‘Much as Tom Wolfe did in ‘The Right Stuff’, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history … Shetterly blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories … Genuinely inspiring book’ Boston Globe
‘A fascinating and important document about the hitherto unknown impact of NASA’s endeavours’ BBC Sky at Night magazine
‘Shetterly’s highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. We’d do well to put this book into the hands of young women who have long since been told that there’s no room for them at the scientific table’ Library Journal
‘Inspiring and enlightening’ Kirkus
‘Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights’ Publishers Weekly
‘This an is incredibly powerful and complex story, and Shetterly has it down cold. The breadth of her well-documented research is immense, and her narrative compels on every level. The timing of this revelatory book could not be better, and book clubs will adore it’ Booklist
‘Meticulous … the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilise their flights of fancy’ Seattle Times
About the Author
Margot Lee Shetterly is an independent scholar and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation award recipient, currently at work on The Human Computer Project, a digital archive of the stories of NASA’s female Human Computers. She is one of the founders of Inside Mexico Magazine, an English-language magazine for Mexico’s expat population, and in her former lives worked as an Internet executive and an investment banker. She splits her time between Hampton, Virginia and Valle de Bravo, Mexico.
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The first and most obvious, is the lack of any illustrations or photographs. It would have added significantly to the impact of the book to see photographs of the key individuals described in the book and also the buildings and laboratories/test equipment they were using. Many such photos exist as a quick check via Google shows. On a personal level, I would have enjoyed seeing some examples of the types of maths that were being used. I can understand this not being included in the main text but could have been included as an appendix.
There are two major themes carried in the writing, one being the difficulties and damage caused by segregation, the other being the emergence of NASA and the US space program. Hence, it is probably inevitable that book is written primarily for US readership. That is not meant as criticism, only as an observation. In practice, for readers outside the US, it may mean resorting to Google to find out about individuals referred to in the book but are not well known outside the US. As an example, I can cite the mention of Althea Gibson: an apt but not obvious choice as a sportsperson.
I found the balance tilted more towards the discussion of segregation than the technical and scientific aspects . In places, the description of the cruelties and loss inflicted by segregation became a little repetitive. But it could also be argued some issues bear repeating. On the other hand, as a child, I recall listening to discussions about how the US overtook the USSR as it was then because of its mastery of the orbital mechanics required for spacecraft rendezvous. I was hoping to learn more about the role Katherine Johnson played in this development. In the film of the same name, there was a scene which seemed to indicate she had played a/the key role in mastering the maths involved but there was scant mention in the book. The book did refer to Mrs.Johnson's calculations in the launches of the early Mercury astronauts and, later, Apollo 11 and 13. But, I'm still wondering if she led the refinement and application of the maths involved in space rendezvous.
Two, minor themes of the book were the male - female and the engineer versus non-engineer biases at NACA and later NASA. The former was (and may probably still be) true of most working environments at that time. As for engineers: it's not just in the aerospace industry that engineers consider themselves to be first among equals. That being said, as a non-engineer who worked with engineers of different flavours (electrical, mechanical and chemical) at different times, I find them to be an uncommonly well qualified and knowledgeable cadre. In any working environment, someone has to lead and in a technology-led domain like aerospace, it's inevitable that engineers take charge. I can point to the decline of several large corporations when the engineers who founded the company were replaced by bureaucrats and bean-counters.
But these are mainly personal observations about a fine book which I have recommended to several friends and my family. The book is well written and carefully researched as attested by the long list of notes and the bibliography.
The book, however, covers a much greater expanse of time and shows the many difficulties that black, bright women had to overcome to be able to be so useful to the Jet plane and space exploration developments. The book is full of detail - perhaps a little too much in parts for a man brought up in the UK to fully appreciate - but is really inspirational as it covers this important period of social and scientific progress. Once my wife has finished it, I hope to pass it on to our granddaughter who is currently at GCSE level; I think it will be educational in quite a few different ways.
A good complement to the film released around the same time the book fills in details of other relevant, interesting things leading up to and happening at the time that the film cannot dwell on. One example I remember that the book goes into in some details is the utterly biased education system based on race and the 'feet dragging' / 'intimidation' that went on against those that tried to change things (for example: any school that implements the federal directive to de-segregate will be closed).