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Hidden Figures: Book summary and reviews of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly X
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
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Book Summary

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA at the leading edge of the feminist and civil rights movement, whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space—a powerful, revelatory contribution that is as essential to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America as Between the World and Me and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The basis for the smash Academy Award-nominated film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

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 they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country's future.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

The #1 New York Times bestseller
Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction
Winner Black Caucus of American Library Association Best Nonfiction Book
Winner NAACP Image Award Best Nonfiction Book
Winner National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Communication Award

"Much as Tom Wolfe did in The Right Stuff, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women's lives and the broader sweep of history ... Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories" - Boston Globe

"Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book's strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come." - Seattle Times

"Margot Lee Shetterly does not play the austere historian in Hidden Figures. She is right there at the beginning with evocative memories of her childhood, visiting her father—an engineer turned climate scientist—at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia…Hidden Figures…is clearly fueled by pride and admiration, a tender account of genuine transcendence and camaraderie. The story warmly conveys the dignity and refinements of these women. They defied barriers for the privilege of offering their desperately needed technical abilities." - The New York Times Book Review - Janna Levin

"Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Shetterly's highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. We'd do well to put this book into the hands of young women who have long since been told that there's no room for them at the scientific table." - Library Journal (starred review)

"Much of the work will be confusing to the mathematically disinclined, but their story is inspiring and enlightening." - Kirkus

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Author Information

Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly is a writer who grew up in Hampton Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation of the Humanities grant for her research into the history of women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, VA.

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