I wasn't sure how I'd feel about a book that is about mathematicians. Doing math doesn't sound that interesting to me. Reading about math seem even less interesting. However, it's not really about doing math. Yes, there is that math part but it intersects with civil rights, woman's rights, cold war politics, and the space race. This made it a bit more interesting to me because it put the work in context.
This all takes place at the Langley Research center in Hampton, Virginia. At first, it was a research center for the NACA and later for NASA. NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) was created to use engineering research and development to solve problems facing the the aircraft industry and the military air services when the era of flight was just in it's infancy. In 1958, the NACA evolved into NASA. Not only was the research facility being used to advance aircraft technology, it was used to get the United States into Space and, ultimately, to the Moon so we could stick it to those Communist Soviets. After all, the space race was ultimately an arm of the cold war. We had to prove that were were technologically more advanced and if the the Soviets were in space, we had to be too because it was seen as a national security issue (and important to our country's ego).
It starts in a time with computers were not physical objects. They were people. They did complex math to assist the work engineers were doing. Basically, they were human scientific calculators. This was considered grunt level work. Because of this, it was a job that didn't pay as much as engineering. This kind of job was akin to secretarial work. Thus, it was a job more suitable for women. These people couldn't possibly be brilliant. Right?
There wasn't just a few "computers". There were whole teams of mostly women to do complex calculations. This was also at a time of racial segregation, and before women's liberation. They didn't just hire white women, but they hired black women too because the demand was so high for processing data due to World War II. However, the black women were segregated into separate wings and overall didn't get the same treatment as the white computers.
The story centers mostly around three black women Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. These were women that had to overcome a lack of educational opportunities, discrimination due to being not only black but also being female. They also had to survive through technological advances where computers became more advanced and made calculating by hand obsolete. These woman became highly trusted and relied upon during the Mercury and Apollo space missions. They calculated launch windows, trajectories, plotted backup navigation charts, and later verifying numbers calculated by electronic computers. They did so with little fanfare from the public, but to the astronauts, the women doing these calculations and documentation were absolutely looked at in high regard. Their lives were in the hands of these women. These women worked for NASA into the Space Shuttle program and Johnson worked on plans for missions to Mars.
These women were truly self-made women who fought tooth-and-nail for everything they earned. Katherine Johnson, despite showing strong mathematical abilities at a young age wasn't supposed to attend school past the eighth grade. This was because the county she grew up in West Virgina didn't offer public schooling to black children after that grade. Her parents fought for her to attend school that was on the campus of what is now West Virginia State University. She ended up graduating at 14 years old. She went on to a black college and graduated with high honors at 18. Despite those high honors, the only job she could get was teaching a black public schools. It seems to me anyone else with those credentials could get very high paying and respected engineering jobs. Mary Jackson had a similar background where she went to segregated schools, earned her college degree and started as a teacher but worked secretarial jobs too. She ended up being recruited by the NACA to work as a computer and later on she worked for an engineer in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Then she worked as an engineer in several NASA divisions and eventually achieved the most senior title within the engineering department. Dorothy Vaughan, like Mary and Katherine graduated from college with a degree in Mathematics. She taught at a high school for 14 years. Her career at the NACA started during World War II calculating flight paths. She became head of the wing of black computers at the NACA. She continued working for Langley when it became part of NASA. She taught herself the FORTRAN programming language and taught it to her co-workers.
Katherine Johnson earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and numerous accolades and co-authored numerous scientific papers. Mary Johnson earned numerous awards, authored and co-authored 12 technical papers and worked to help woman and minorities advance their careers.
I thought what they did was inspiring and they have done so much to advance women and people of color in STEM fields. I, personally, am no mathematician and have no engineering aspirations but, as a person working in a technological field, appreciate their work and achievements. I think what impresses me the most is their determination and hard work despite the obstacles they faced. They also demonstrated the ability to evolve and change as technology advanced. I think, the fact they had a teaching background, they were prepared to be lifelong learners and this greatly helped them.
I know people like Grace Hopper are highly revered but I have to think there are more stories out there of women who made important contributions to science and technology. I loved reading the story of these women that worked behind the scenes as, I think, the the people who do the most difficult, dirty, thankless work don't get very much attention. I'd like to see more about these types of people. As much as we love to revere the innovators and those who come up with the great ideas, I want to hear about those who made those ideas happen. I want to hear about the people that work hard, with little fanfare, to make things happen. Maybe that's just because that's how I see myself. I'm not an innovator. I'm no Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Grace Hopper. I'm just one in a team of many that bring ideas to the public. All of us have a story and I'd love to hear/read more of those.