Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly’s book about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and other black women workers in the US space program – The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race – has now been made into a popular film, Hidden Figures, released in cinemas in early 2017 and now available on DVD.

The book is not as well-crafted as the film – it is sometimes gushing and verbose – but the film is far from being (does not pretend to be) a documentary. The book tells you more about what actually happened.

Black women “computers” were first recruited in large numbers during World War 2, as the US military aircraft industry was ramped up from marginal output to huge production. The research centre in Langley, Virginia, later to become NASA, was part-segregated because the US armed forces were segregated then, and anyway Virginia was one of the most segregated states.

In the film, the driving forces of desegregation at Langley are shown as the black women’s determination to stand up for themselves, which was real, and a benign top boss, which is fiction.

One other real factor was that the Langley scientists and engineers, many from the north-eastern states, a fair few Jewish, were mostly liberal. None, according to Shetterly, was really a campaigner, but they mostly disliked discrimination against black people. (Some were a bit more equivocal about discrimination against women).

The other driver was US federal government policy, in turn driven by the civil rights struggle of the mass of African-Americans and of the left.

Virginia was so racist that when the US Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, in January 1959, the state repealed its compulsory education law and one county in Virginia shut down all its public schools for five years rather than integrate.

But the US federal government could not afford to have its star research facility seen as segregated. Particularly not when, globally, in the Cold War, the USA was seeking to have countries with non-white populations ally with the USA rather than the USSR.

The book is however as off-beam as the film about the maths. Katherine Johnson became a mathematician, Mary Jackson became an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan became a computer scientist, but those things are not the same as each other, and not the same as being a “computer”, which is what they were hired as.

Before the late 1950s or early 60s, “computer” meant not a machine but a person, a person employed to do calculations.

Typesetting and proof-reading are skilled and important jobs, but they are not the same job as imaginative writing. Likewise, “computing” is not the same as maths.

Both the film and the book attribute Katherine Johnson’s rise to her knowledge of analytic geometry, as if that were some abstruse field which no-one else at Langley would know about. In fact “analytic geometry” just means geometry using Cartesian coordinates, which is standard GCSE maths, and which everyone at Langley with even high school maths would have known about.

Three-dimensional analytic geometry, which the Langley people would have needed to use, is a step beyond the two-dimensional analytic geometry in GCSE. But not a huge step.

The film, not the book, has Katherine Johnson checking a spaceship trajectory by using “Euler’s method”. Presumably they mean the Euler, or “Euler-Romberg”, method for numerical solutions to ordinary differential equations: click here for a quick explanation.

That engineers should be baffled by her proposing that method – which is how the film shows it – is unlikely.

The actual history of that spaceship trajectory, according to the book, is that Katherine Johnson recalculated the trajectory with a hand calculating machine (they were big machines, not like today’s pocket calculators), using the same maths as the IBM 7090 computer which Langley had installed, simply in order to check. Electronic computers were not 100% reliable then.


A Monroe calculating machine, such as Langley would have used