Before NASA had computers, they had people, generally women, who performed calculations by hand, or with the aid of slide rules and adding machines. During 1960s-era NASA, mathematical calculation was considered menial, low-status work that was relegated to those who were barred from more prestigious job titles, like ‘engineer’ or ‘physicist’, due to their social status and prejudices at the time.
The film Hidden Figures, based on the true story told in the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows three ‘human computers’ whose unparalleled mathematical and physical genius made the first American crewed space flights a success.
And they did it while constantly facing not only discrimination based on their gender, but also the endless racist barriers and indignities of the segregation era.
In a just world, the scientists in the film would be household names alongside those of the men who rode their calculations up to - and safely back from - space.
Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) supervised the West Area Computers - the department of African-American women who worked as mathematicians for various NASA projects - and became a leader in programming FORTRAN, the language of the first electronic computers NASA used for orbital calculations.
Katherine G Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson), whose brilliance in mathematics was recognized (sometimes grudgingly) by everyone around her, performed calculations in analytical geometry that were so reliable and essential for early space flights that her verification of electronic computers helped instill confidence in their work. Without Johnson’s pioneering of new mathematical approaches, the first human orbital flights would have been impossible at the time.
As a tale of scientific achievement and space exploration, Hidden Figures is a fun ride, with suspense, humor, and enough physics and mathematics to keep things exciting for those of us who like to geek out (but not enough to slow down the story for those who don’t).
There are a few somewhat cheesy lines (“look beyond the mathematics”) but the characters rightly express why the scientists are so essential, not just for their ability to manipulate numbers, but their ability to deeply and intuitively understand the physics of the situation.
This is true in all areas of physics and astronomy, then and today, and it’s nice to see it expressed well in a movie. It’s also nice to see an honest depiction of the importance of collaboration and open sharing of information, rather than yet another ‘lone genius’ stereotype. Some of the scientists - especially Johnson - are stand-out geniuses, but the full endeavour is a team effort.
This is not just a tale of scientific achievement. It’s a tale of the frustrations, injustices, and everyday drudgery of trying to do science in a society and industry that rewards the work and achievements of some more than others. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that all the scientists in the film eventually manage, through overwhelming excellence and determination, to get some small amount of the recognition owed to them, and that they all achieve career success that was unprecedented for African-American women of that time. The heroes of the story are truly remarkable, inspiring role models.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to feel that we, as modern-day scientists, have failed to live up to the example they set for us.
Fifty-five years ago, NASA was relatively progressive in breaking down segregation earlier than other institutions, and it continues to hold equity as a value. Still, it’s not unusual now to give a seminar at a NASA facility and find that the people in the room look an awful lot like those depicted in the movie. Mathematics, physics, astronomy, engineering, and computer science today are all still massively skewed toward white and male.
For a view of what astrophysics looks like from a black woman perspective today, check out this interview with MIT researcher Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. By the numbers, 2 per cent of engineers today are black women, as are 1 per cent of computer scientists.
As Dr Prescod-Weinstein points out in her interview, there are even fewer in theoretical astrophysics.
Many young women in STEM fields today can easily relate to many moments in the film (such as being passed up for promotions, senior men taking credit for their work and people questioning whether they can possibly be competent). If they are women of colour, they face all that along with racism that ranges from background noise-level to blatantly overt.
Arbitrary gender divisions haven’t disappeared either. Women-computers at 1960s-era NASA were expected to conform to a strict dress code: skirt below the knee, sweater preferred over blouse, heels and perhaps a simple string of pearls. There may be a bit more flexibility today, but there are still influential men who will publicly proclaim that women must wear heels to look “professional.”
One thing the scientists in the film all had in common was support from their families, including an acceptance that despite the expectations of the time, they would not bear sole responsibility for housework and childcare. Those expectations haven’t exactly disappeared today. Thanks to old-fashioned career structures and social norms, women who lack support still struggle to compete in a professional world that values long working hours and frequent travel, in spite of legal pressures for change.
It’s easy to watch the film and point out all the contrasts between the world depicted in the 1960s American South and our society today, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back just yet. In a telling scene, one of the white women in the film tells Vaughn, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” to which Vaughn responds: “I know you probably believe that.”
It would be nice to believe that the discrimination and injustice faced by the scientists in the movie is in the past, now that we’ve removed the “colored” signs from the doors. It isn’t, and we need to own up to that, and we need to fix it.
Watch the film, be inspired, and work to make the world a better, more equal place.
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