When the movie Hidden Figures came out in 2017, I made sure to go see it in theaters. Not only did it sound interesting, I wanted Hollywood to know that a movie about black female scientists had a paying audience.
Like most people, I had no idea of the story of the “colored computers,” women whose work helped the U.S. get into space. Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson spent years doing mathematical calculations that were critical our efforts in World War II, the Korean War, and the space race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy as portrayed in the movie
If you want to dig a little deeper into their story, you can check out the book that the movie was based on. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly came out in 2016 and tells the story of the computers in greater detail.
The book follows several generations of computers, starting with Dorothy Vaughan who joined during the expansion of aeronautics research at NACA (the precursor of NASA) during WWII. With so many men off at war, the need for mathematicians meant that many women, even black women, were hired into the workforce at Langley. And even after the war, the need to maintain the superiority of our air forces during conflicts like the Korean War meant that other women like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson came to join Dorothy. Eventually, the importance of the space race meant the creation of NASA and starting space research basically from scratch, bringing in even more talent such as Christine Mann Darden.
Hidden Figures was Shetterly’s first book, and that shows a bit in the way parts get bogged down in the overwhelming amount of detail. (It took me a while to read this one.) According to the Kindle version, the Notes and Bibliography take up 20% of the book.
But at the same time, that detail allows a full picture of what life was like during these times, particularly for these women and their families. As someone who was born in the 80s, this book provides valuable context for not only the civil rights movement and major historical events, but also scenes of daily life during these times.
The movie is an excellent adaptation, streamlining all the detail into a smooth narrative. Of course, that means it is not always perfectly factual; the timeline of these women’s careers is greatly compressed, for example. There is also a Young Readers version of the book that I understand is more readable as it is for children.
As a scientist, there were a couple of notes from the book that I found interesting. First, most of these women were originally teachers, one of the most stable, respected professions for smart black women at the time. Yet these were women that could (and in some cases, did) have received advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering. Imagine today if the same people who are NASA scientists were instead high school teachers!
Second, the structure of scientific research that Shetterly describes at NASA is very similar to science today. She describes teams led by engineers (who today would be called Principal Investigators or PIs) with support staff such as the computers (today’s laboratory technicians, including myself). The engineers would draft research reports or memos that would be picked apart by a committee before being finalized; this is much like the peer review process today governing how scientists publish papers in journals after being critiqued by external reviewers.
As a lab tech, I appreciated that this book focused on how the contributions of the computers to NASA’s research were just as important as those of the engineers. However, the fact remains that many of the computers should have been engineers to begin with, being just as intelligent and capable as their supervisors, and many fought their whole careers to advance and be accepted as such.
It has been wonderful to see these women get the recognition they deserve. Katherine Johnson now has two NASA facilities named after her, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Not only are the “hidden figures” an important part of black history and an important part of U.S. history, they also helped to pave the way for women like me in science. Even if I never knew it until recently.