Skip to main content

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterly ****

This is a truly remarkable human story, which is why it gets four stars despite a couple of significant issues. Many non-fiction literary agents have a mantra of 'Is it an article?' for a book proposal that really hasn't got enough content to justify a full length manuscript. The story of Hidden Figures would have made a superb 3,000 word article, but stretched to book length it does become extremely repetitious. The other problem I had was that I was sold this title as popular science - if the book had included science content it could have been far more engaging, but the author clearly has no interest in science or maths and skims over any technical issues as quickly as possible - what remains is pure social history.
Despite that disappointment I can only say in awe again, what a story! If you are familiar with the history of science you will know about the human computers, often women, who worked in astronomy and who were the engine behind significant astronomical discoveries. In Hidden Figures we meet the African American female mathematicians who worked hidden away in the US aerospace industry. This narrative is so remarkable because these women overcame a perfect storm of opposition. Not only were they female, they were black. Not only were they black, but they were working in Virginia, a Southern state whose white community appeared to resent the abolishment of slavery and fought to maintain as much segregation between blacks and whites as possible.
Despite all of this, despite the odds hugely stacked against them, the women featured in Hidden Figures started off as the human predecessors of electronic computers, crunching numbers for engineers, and went on to gain significant roles as mathematicians and engineers in their own right. They worked at the Langley, Virginia facility, set up in the Second World War to work on warplanes, and later helping to develop technology for missiles and on the space programme - these women were an important part of the team who put men on the Moon. (White, and just men, of course.)
As an example of the way that maths and science are given short shrift, the topic of Reynolds numbers is brought up at one point. Sounds interesting - what's that all about? I've no real idea.  All we are told about Reynolds numbers is that it was a 'bit of mathematical jujitsu '. 
I'm giving this book four stars because of the remarkable story and individuals involved. Treating the book purely as a social history title it only deserves three, as the writing isn't particularly engaging, and as popular science it only should get two. But put those concerns behind you and celebrate the work of these individuals.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr