Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Margot Lee Shetterly
Biography, history, science, space

It should be easy to like Hidden Figures. A group of talented women who overcame the insults of a truly vile system and helped make the United States great are story-telling gold. The fact that they've been unjustly ignored just makes it that much more important. Throw in the Second World War, the Cold war, politics, and the space race, and you've got major drama going on.

All true . . . and yet Hidden Figures suffers from two big weaknesses. In the first place, Shetterly spends so little time on the actual facts--especially the science, the engineering, but also the politics and history--as to give the impression that she doesn't understand them. It's hard to argue that what the black women mathematicians did was important if you do not, in fact, describe what it was. In the second place (and, I think, more fundamentally), the book is absurdly overwritten. The prose is purple, the praise is fulsome, and the nuance is nonexistent. Shetterly ladles adjectives over her protagonists like hot fudge on a sundae--all, naturally, laudatory; you could hardly guess from Hidden Figures that these women could ever have had character flaws, or failings, or disagreements.

Hidden Figures, in short, could have been much better. One way would have been combine a more nuanced tone with a wider intellectual scope. Another would have been to have allowed these women to speak for themselves, in their own voices--a harder task, given what's surely a vast lack of documentation, but one more suited to the subjective approach that Shetterly seems to want. Lacking either, this book reads like a series of baseball cards: such-and-such many hits, All-Star selections, awards, batting championships, standing ovations, newspaper headlines, and so forth. These women deserve better.

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns suffers from a somewhat similar case of authorial logorrhea, but it does effectively analyze a major tide in American history (the Great Migration). A much better book specifically about science and race is Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.


  1. I can heartily recommend the movie.
    I was amused that the people task with making the mathematical computations were called "computers".

    1. I definitely want to see the movie. In some ways this isn't really book material.