Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Hidden Figures That Charted The American Path To Space

One afternoon in a café and a couple of flavoured lattes later, a first draft I like. It's been a long time since I felt anything like this. The book helped tremendously.

I started out not liking it so much. By the end, however, I knew what the fuss was about. And I liked that connection between the ladies of Langley's West Computing and those from the Harvard Observatory, and I wasn't the only one who noticed. Seeing the dots being joined as the pages turned is thrilling. It's like witnessing the continuation of a developing space saga.

I was also nervous, and not just because of the coffees. As an editor, I'm supposed to be good at highlighting a writer's blind spots, but I'm not as confident in spotting my own. When dealing with material that touches on sensitive matters, one is likely to hit a sore spot. If I have, I apologise.

The hidden figures that charted the American path to space

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 22 February 2017

Mention "human computers" and the first thing that might come to mind are the mentats in Frank Herbert's Dune.

The second thing might be a bunch of women called the Harvard Computers, who helped American astronomer Edward Charles Pickering map the stars. I first learnt of them - in particular Annie Jump Cannon, a key figure in the development of the modern star classification system - from Jason Porath's Rejected Princesses.

But it never occurred to me — and perhaps many others — that America’s aeronautics industry and that nation’s foray into space also received help from female human computers, some of whom were African Americans. Remarkable, perhaps, given the prejudices of that era.

Then again, maybe not. From familiar figures in sports, entertainment and the civil rights movement to the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, African Americans played undeniably crucial roles in the history of the United States — something that seems to have been downplayed by certain historical narratives.

So we should all compose a note of thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, who brought to light the incredible story of the West Area Computing Unit, the black, all-female group of mathematicians of the Langley Research Center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become Nasa.

Some of us probably shouldn’t be faulted for assuming that Neil deGrasse Tyson is the only black scientist in America. When I was growing up, my knowledge of US history mostly came from movies and brick-thick encyclopaedias... when I could get to them.

Shetterly, on the other hand, “knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” Her father was a research scientist at the Langley Research Center and her mom was an English professor. So this can also be considered their story as well.

A cast of thousands populates this sweeping narrative, from civil rights leaders, scholars and even celebrities and the cast of Star Trek. The lab employees at Langley, from Shetterly’s descriptions, wouldn’t be out of place in modern-day institutions such as Google or maybe Tesla.

Let’s not forget the female mathematicians, black and white, who may have numbered up to a thousand. To tell all their stories within a single volume would have been impossible, so Hidden Figures focused on a few, all of whom were from Langley’s West Area Computing Unit.

Among the standouts include Dorothy Vaughan, who rose up the ranks to the head of the West Area Computers and is the lynchpin of this tale; Katherine Johnson, who calculated the launch windows for the first astronauts, including John Glenn; and Mary Jackson, Nasa’s first black female engineer and Girl Scout mum who strove to get more women employed by the space agency.

This book is aptly titled. Racism and misogyny meant that the part women and blacks played in the war effort was largely — and unfairly — kept out of the spotlight. Their work was vital, but besides doing the math, the West Area Computers also battled those two forces for their due and dignity. However, they didn’t face and overcome them alone.

More than the incredible story of barrier-breaking, this book is also a heady slice of American history, the apple-pie fragrance and sweetness of which emanates from the kindness of Margery Hannah, head of West Computing’s section, to her black subordinates; the righteousness of Robert T. Jones, the aeronautical engineer who stood up for a black man bullied by cops; and astronaut John Glenn’s trust — by “the transitive property of equality” — in Katherine Johnson’s verification of the numbers that would determine his fate.

Also hard to ignore is the heartwarming and exemplary spirit of kinship within the Langley staff. Some of these women are wives and mothers, who put up with the demands of their jobs and the prejudices of the day for their families. The story of how Mary Jackson helped her son design a winning car for a soapbox derby, for instance, is worthy of a Petronas Mother’s Day ad.

One also got the sense that the camaraderie among the staff also broke boundaries. Under Shetterly’s penmanship, their achievements, beliefs and efforts eclipsed their racial identities. “Black” and “white” became nothing more than the colours on the pages. As Katherine Johnson told audiences during her talks, according to the author: “Math was either right or wrong, and if you got it right, it didn’t matter what colour you were.”

Fine, so I might have run away quite a bit with how awesome this book is, even if some parts tend to gloss over some of the other characters’ histories and over-explain the technical aspects of the problems the characters worked on. I should also toss in how much the US needs to remember this bit of its past, considering who’s currently in the White House.

As Hidden Figures illustrates, America was at the forefront of scientific innovation, a battleground for civil rights and, despite its apparent problems in solving its racial issues, an example of democratic government. Not to mention a trove of very inspiring human stories.

Just as how a little steel ball launched by the Russians into space galvanised the engineers and mathematicians of Nasa into plotting a course for the moon, that guy’s election victory might prompt Americans to rediscover what made the US great all those years ago. They could, perhaps, start by doing the math with these now-revealed figures.

Hidden Figures
The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

Margot Lee Shetterly
William Collins
384 pages
ISBN: 9780008201326


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