Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Sensational "Hidden Figures": Hardback Non-Fiction Out Today; Movie On January 6, 2017

While NASA has done an admirable (if too long after-the-fact) job of celebrating the contributions of its mathematicians of color (seeing Katherine Johnson -- at right -- win a Presidential Medal of Freedom), most of the world remains unaware of their stories -- of their lives, and the deep debt our nation's space program owes them. [Yes -- this is a STEM girl power historical story, on fleek.]

Without them, and arguably without the generally contemporaneous West Virginia rocket boys of "October Sky", there would have been no John Glenn, no Gordo Cooper, no Jim Lovell and no Neil Armstrong -- and none of the successes -- of those NASA missions.

I've led with the movie trailer, as it is already attracting significant Oscar buzz. But do go pick up the hardback. It is a superb piece of factual story-telling.

. . . .Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future. . . .

Yes, I am taken by all of these stories -- and bodily so. I am just beaming this glorious clear Indian Summer morning, as I prepare to walk in. . . .


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