Posted on behalf of Alexandra Witze
Some of the most intriguing stories in the history of US science have emerged over the past few years. It’s about time. These books centre on something long under wraps: the centrally important roles women played starting some 70 years ago in the great technological transition that gripped the twentieth century. Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City (Touchstone, 2013) chronicled the contributions of the women who worked at the secret atomic-bomb laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Second World War. Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (reviewed here) depicted the mathematicians or “human computers” who crunched numbers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California from the 1940s. In this catalogue, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is more than just another entry.
Shetterly’s book is an exploration of the groundbreaking achievements and shocking discrimination experienced by a group of talented mathematicians in all aspects of their professional and personal lives. These African-American women — Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden among them — began working from the early 1940s at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, then the nation’s premier aeronautical laboratory. That wartime breakthrough was to propel many of them into long and successful careers at the heart of the space race. (A feature film based on the book and starring Taraji P. Henson will be released in January.)
These stellar scientists broke major political and social barriers. Virginia in the American South was a segregated state. Beginning after the Civil War and lasting until the civil-rights era of the 1960s, “Jim Crow” laws enforced a rigid racial hierarchy. Shops, restaurants, public transportation — all viciously discriminated against African-Americans in matters as basic as where to use the toilet.
The mathematicians whose experience Shetterly unveils came of age in this reality. Members of a thriving African-American middle class, they went to universities such as Howard in Washington DC — historically black institutions where they were taught by eminent faculty trained at universities such as Harvard, who could not secure a position there because of their race. These accomplished young women became teachers, then generally the sole career option for educated black women. (Postgraduate education was not even possible in some states; rather than admit African-American students to its state university for graduate studies, between 1936 and 1950 Virginia paid them “scholarships” to attend graduate school elsewhere.)
But after America entered the war in 1941, new professional opportunities opened. Langley, where engineers designed and tested technological advances that permitted US planes to fly higher and faster, needed an awful lot of number-crunchers to calculate, say, the ideal air flow over an aeroplane wing. That crushing demand opened the gates to women. Female computers began working through calculations that kept Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress bomber aloft and the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang fighter manoeuvering through the skies.
Even here, however, segregation persisted. Vaughan and her colleagues were placed in Langley’s ‘West Computing’ unit. White women computed on the east side. At the back of the Langley cafeteria, a white cardboard sign labeled COLORED COMPUTERS directed the West mathematicians to sit together at lunch rather than mingle. Eventually, “tiny firebrand” Miriam Mann stole the sign, and the table was left unlabelled.
Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, illuminates this remarkable group’s professional careers and personal travails. Simply getting housing as a black woman was fraught with difficulty in these decades. It was only by harnessing the strong social networks of the African-American middle class that these mathematicians finally got a toehold in the American dream. Shared work experiences bound the group outside Langley: Vaughan and Mann brought their families together for local activities including a phenomenal performance in Hampton by iconic African-American singer Marian Anderson.
Postwar, the future was unclear, Shetterly shows. Would women be pushed out of the workforce? The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 changed all that. In 1958, the Langley lab became part of the newly formed NASA and the centre of Project Mercury, the programme for crewed space travel. The West computers scattered to other divisions to begin work on the complex calculations of getting spacecraft into orbit.
In 1959 Johnson and her colleague Ted Skopinski first calculated the mathematics of firing a capsule into ballistic flight. The equations described the flight of a spacecraft, from the angle of launch, to point of re-entry, to the effect of Earth’s rotation. Their work underlay the successful 1961 suborbital flight of astronaut Alan Shepard. The following year, when John Glenn was about to make the first US orbital flight, he personally requested Johnson to double-check, by hand, the calculations of his trajectory. Johnson went on to an illustrious career in the US space programme. Her mathematics dictated the trajectory of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s descent to the surface, and their tricky rendezvous with the command module in lunar orbit in order to make it safely home. Later, she worked on the space shuttle programme. In November 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama.
Vaughan, who in the 1950s had served as Langley’s first black supervisor, forged a successful career in computer programming. Jackson achieved the rank of engineer, then turned her attention to helping other women and minorities into high-level positions. Darden, one of the next generation to benefit from the barriers broken by this group, became a world expert on sonic booms and supersonic flight.
Hidden Figures is not the definitive history of women in the space programme, nor of women at Langley. It does not need to be. It lies at the intersection of the greatest scientific advances and the greatest civil-rights battles in US history.
Alexandra Witze is a correspondent for Nature based in Boulder, Colorado. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and she tweets at @alexwitze.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.