Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Title: Hidden Figures
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Genre: Biography, Nonfiction
Publisher: William Collins (9th February 2017)


The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked in the moon, some of the brightest minds of their generation, known as ‘human computers’, used pencils and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, and the Space Race, Hidden Figures is a powerful, revelatory tale of race, discrimination and achievement in the modern world. Now a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kristen Dunst and Kevin Costner.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3 stars)

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly is a non-fiction book about the true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of the US’s greatest achievements in space. The book spans from World War II to the 1970s and charts the progress of race and gender equality against the backdrop of the US during the Second World War, the Cold War and the Space Race. Shetterly focuses both narrowly, on individual woman and their lives during this period, and broadly, on national events that were going on as the woman continued their work, to create an encompassing narrative of events during this time.

I first heard about Shetterly’s book via the film of the same name. I picked HIDDEN FIGURES up because the premise intrigued me, and I wanted to read the book before I watched the film. (At the time of writing this review I have not yet managed to watch the film – do you think I still should?) HIDDEN FIGURES is written in a very academic format, though the tone of the narration to me had very much the feel of a personal account particularly the prologue and epilogue, and there are notes and a bibliography attached at the back of the book.

Although the contents of HIDDEN FIGURES are really interesting, I found the book to be challenging to read. Not because of the content, which as a non-science interested person I found intriguing, but because the narrative seemed to jump all over the place. I don’t know a lot of the intricacies of US history and whilst I was therefore thankful that Shetterly gave context about what was going on in the US, at times I felt it took away from the narrative of the black female mathematicians. It felt like Shetterly was trying to do too much at once.

That being said, I think HIDDEN FIGURES is a very important book and a must read for anyone who is interested in the Space Race. It talks about how NASA was formed from the expansion of the US aeronautics industry and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, to the threat of Russia and the US’s desire to compete against Sputnik. It gives an impression of what it was like working there during that period. It also gives a notion about the two worlds that the black female mathematicians navigated. It’s also one that anyone who likes math or is interested in engineering might want to check out.

HIDDEN FIGURES is not for the casual reader, though there is plenty to interest hidden in the pages. At two hundred and sixty-five pages, excluding notes and bibliography, there is a lot packed into this book. The scope of the story Shetterly tells is extraordinary, and it’s rather sad that so much of it is excluded from the conventional Space Race narrative. HIDDEN FIGURES shows a glimpse into a world where maths and science pushed the boundaries, and what it was like to be there as it happened.

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