Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Copyright September 2016
Hidden Figures is a book fiercely dedicated to foregrounding the exceptionally formidable faction of black female research mathematicians employed at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory—“a conclave of the world's best aerodynamicists”—in the “engineer's paradise” of NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and thereafter NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The book engagingly introduces the reader to the microcosmic world of aeronautical science. Highly inspirational, and beautifully and lyrically written, the book is a glorious blend of fascinating scientific details weaved together with a distinctly relatable human angle—of passion, curiosity, resilience, strength, and optimism, and of the trials and tribulations faced by the African American women mathematicians as they navigate the traditionally and predominantly white and male vocation.
Cohesively structured and lucidly written, the book commendably expounds the nature of aeronautical research carried out during the onset of the space age—Project Mercury summoned to tackle the “Sputnik crisis” which plunged the United States into a space race frenzy—, during the postwar era, and during the war. The book qualifies as an enjoyable and rather relaxing read ideal for the general reader.
Katherine Goble Johnson was one of the figures prominently featured in the narrative. As the author of the research report “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position,” Katherine was credited for leading NASA to “the day when the balance of the space race was tipped in favor of the United States.” Reverently described to have proven herself to be “as reliable with numbers as a Swiss timepiece,” the author further spotlighted Katherine's ferocious curiosity and childlike passion for learning.
Particularly notable, the author's characterization of Katherine as loving “every moment” of the “seemingly endless hours, days, weeks, months of the same thing,” and of the “typical eye-straining, monotonous computing work” will doubtlessly strike a chord with similar-minded readers. The implied intense intellectual and mental discipline in turn potently inspires both female and male, black and white, reader seeking analytical careers.
The narrative of black female mathematicians in the aeronautics field is also explored through smart women such as Mary Jackson—one who possessed “the soul of an engineer”—and Dorothy Vaughan. Staying true to presenting and sustaining the human element of the narrative, the author detailed the personal lives, struggles, careers, and aspirations of the individual women. To Mary Jackson for example, life was “a long process of raising one's expectations.” The reader will inevitably find strength in the stories of the intellectual and inspirational women who successfully conquered the odds and institutional prejudice.
For the reader not generally acquainted with the discipline of aeronautics and the properties of aerodynamics, the book will offer a considerable amount of novel and interesting information. Incorporating clearly elucidated jargon moderately into the narrative, the book shuns unnecessarily technical or intricate presentations of scientific knowledge that could potentially turn off readers.
Select morsels of information are notably more intriguing than others. The Reynolds number is one such exceedingly captivating detail; the author explained its significance as a “mathematical jujitsu that measured how closely the performance of a wind tunnel came to mimicking actual flight.” It was equally and surely fascinating to learn of the Collier Trophy, the aeronautics industry's equivalent of the most prestigious award.
Other pieces of information are rather jaw-dropping, especially for one not in the field of science. It was transfixing to learn of “aerodynamic equations describing transonic airflows” that might contain “as many as thirty-five variables;” in this case the author definitely successfully convinced the reader regarding the immense difficulty and complexity of mind-boggling tasks within the job scope of the mathematicians. Or mentions of for example, calculations of pressure distributions that the black female computers were assigned.
Countless other concepts were presented in a manner that effectively whets the reader's appetite. Presented in the narrative in no way an intimidating manner, the author introduced the reader to concepts such as the notion of “subsonic,” “transonic,” and “supersonic” flight; the fundamental aerodynamic concept of “lift and drag,” and the practice of “drag cleanup;” the vehicle performance checklist with the three categories of longitudinal stability and control, lateral stability and control, and stalling; and research in “faster-than-sound flight” along with its associated concept of “compressibility.”
No less riveting are mentions of the somewhat eclectic range of wind tunnels available in the NACA/NASA facilities—for example, the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, the Free-Flight Tunnel, and the Variable-Density Tunnel. Surprises kept arising as the reader later discovers also the existence of what is called an “icing tunnel”—one that “led to improvements in flight safety in freezing temperatures.”
The narrative documents as well the more unsavory aspect of the indignity, discrimination, and constrained career mobility experienced by the black women mathematicians; the humiliating and demoralizing caste system at Langley; the inevitable gender tensions in the male-dominated aeronautical industry and amidst the nation's engineering schools; and even the undercurrent of racial segregation and prejudice in the country, and its accompanying black freedom movement and activism.
The term “Mississippiitis” in the book was especially memorable, defined as “that disease of segregation, violence, and oppression that plagued America like a chronic bout of consumption.”
The book contains noticeably beautiful metaphorical writing. One such example was the author describing employees working on Project Mercury as having transformed their desks into a “trigonometric war room.” In another instance, and exquisitely penned, women were said as having to “wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.”
The final one-third of the book, chronicling the dawn of the space age and related research and information, and potentially the core focus of the book judging by the book title, is distinctly more captivating in content compared to the first two-thirds of the book. That said, the first two-thirds of the book could greatly benefit from a comparably more in-depth coverage of information.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.