But the Virginia writer knew this convention to be false. She grew up surrounded by blacks in STEM. Her father spent 40 years working in NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Her aunts and uncles overwhelmingly made their way into engineering and technology. To Shetterly, “the face of science was brown like mine.”
It makes sense, then, that her first book, “Hidden Figures,” was sparked by a visit home, when her father casually mentioned that her former Sunday school teacher, Kathleen Land, worked for NASA as a mathematician. Shetterly, 47, followed that thread and spent the next several years researching these little-known “human computers,” women who, for decades, were tucked away in footnotes, their contributions to flight and space exploration gathering dust.
“Hidden Figures” brings four particular women out of the shadows — Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden.
Through careful interviews and painstaking research, Shetterly tells their stories. The book begins in 1943, with the country in the throes of World War II. A labor shortage and concurrent pressure from civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph forced the government to put out the call to women of all races to work as mathematicians at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — the predecessor to NASA.
As each woman — Vaughan, Johnson, Jackson and Darden — joined these ranks, she was shown to racially separate facilities and lunchrooms. Shetterly asks readers to imagine “the chutzpah it took for an African-American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the moon.”
But these women pushed back in ways both significant and measured. One colleague, Miriam Mann, would swipe the “colored computers” sign off their designated lunchroom table every day, daring supervisors to put it back. Jackson found herself telling her boss’ boss that his numbers were incorrect, only to have him come to apologize after he realized she was right.
Incidents of resistance also show up in the movie adaptation of the book, starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. (Darden, who didn’t join NASA until 1967, doesn’t appear in the film.)
All three deliver solid performances, making the viewer comfortable in a world where equations run off the tongue as easily as a recipe in more conventional fare. While Henson’s character receives most of the screen time, it is Monae’s character that elevates the film above a one-note exercise. Jackson’s story — fighting to become the first African American aeronautical engineer at NASA — is worthy of a film of its own.
Both the movie and book make us wonder: How much promise and potential was lost in the teeth of Jim Crow? How much help did Jim Crow give the Russian’s space program?
“I defy gravity/I am stronger than any force/I am Brooklyn”
This isn’t a verse from one of Jay Z’s latest records, but rather the first lines from a high school student’s entry in the Science B.A.T.T.L.E.S. competition.
Students from nine New York City schools competed in June, part of a network of student rap contests that marry verbal dexterity with concepts from plate tectonics to Pluto. These aren’t lectures but true competitions—students in Oakland, California, rapped about whether Rosalind Franklin was ripped off by James Watson and Francis Crick in their discovery of the architecture of DNA.
Stage names were welcome—one student performed as “Double R Bars.” Teachers encouraged adolescents to be energetic and creative as they rhymed lyrics on stage in front of family and peers.
Christopher Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University and author of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, came up with the idea. His goal is simple: introduce scientific ideas in a way that’s fun and relevant.
“Not every student is going to be a straight-A student, and go on to college and declare a science major and be the next Einstein,” he says. “But through this project we definitely are going to have more scientifically literate young people.”
NPR captured behind-the-scenes footage in this seven-minute documentary of the rap battle. Watch it now: