Hidden Figures

Before "computer" meant a sophisticated calculating machine, it meant a person: someone with a firm grasp of numbers and their myriad practical applications. In the 1940s, as the U.S. rapidly expanded its flight program to fight the Axis powers, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia tapped a new source of computing strength: a group of highly educated African American women. For the next two decades, these computers applied their mathematical knowledge to solve problems of flight at Langley. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the previously unknown story of these women in her first book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.

The daughter of a NASA engineer, Shetterly grew up believing that math and science careers were simply a smart choice for black people. But for Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and many other women, the computing pool at Langley offered a chance to break out of traditional "black jobs" and into a new world. Spending their days working alongside top-notch engineers and helping launch airplanes (and later rockets) into flight was intoxicating, but they still had to fight for every bit of recognition they received. Shetterly weaves their stories with a fraught narrative of racial and gender politics in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. Drawing on extensive oral interviews and other records, Shetterly brings her subjects to life, highlighting both their pioneering mathematical work and their struggles to be taken seriously as professionals. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

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