space and beyond

Last week-end I finished reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, a book about the African American women who helped launch America’s first astronauts into space. If you’ve seen my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve been quite engrossed in this book, which is about something that I thought I had next to zero interest in.

Don’t get me wrong — I have a reasonable interest in maths, science and historical events; and the age-old question of what is really out there? has some portion of my curiosity, but space exploration has never rated very highly on the list of things I’m interested in enough to actively and independently research. (What would be on this list? Sounds like it could be a whole other post on its own, but probably stuff that affects my day-to-day, or stuff about why things are how they are. But in truth, I don’t think I’ve done much non-fiction reading, web browsing or other “research” since finishing formal education.)

I guess space exploration, to me, was always something a bit pie in the sky compared to immediate problems like climate change and poverty in developing countries. Shetterly even mentions in the later chapters of her book that the space race left some African Americans of the time quite disgruntled, wondering why their country was so concerned about getting into space (and spending millions of dollars on it) when there were Earthly troubles to be addressed, like why they were still being treated as second-class citizens.

So why did I read this book?

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history books

I’ve been reading more of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, and I’m finding it really awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. And I’m not even that much further in (haven’t been doing quite as much reading as I hoped, but such is life, and I read slowly).

Yesterday I read the part where some important guy (I forget who — one thing I’m having trouble with is all the names and titles in this book, but that happens with other books too, so it might just be me) — anyway, important guy (some higher-up in the military) is giving a speech to an assembly of staff from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and he commends them for their work. This is set in the years of WWII, so he tells them that they are helping the war effort as much as the soldiers on the frontlines.

And that got me thinking about how, in all my history lessons in school about the World Wars, no one ever mentions the researchers and scientists and engineers that had to invent and innovate and problem-solve to help “win the war”. I remember being told about the surge in women entering the workforce for jobs that involved things like sewing, cooking, and nursing; and I remember learning about large factories and warehouses that employed a lot of people; but I don’t remember being told about the recruitment drive for scientists and mathematicians.

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uncovering hidden figures

Last week-end, I started reading Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a non-fiction book about the African American women who, as the cover states, “helped win the space race”. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve learnt so far.

To be fair, I know very little about space exploration, engineering or physics, so it probably seems extra insightful to me, but it is thought-provoking in other ways too.

At the start, Shetterly writes about what it was like for her to grow up in Hampton, Virginia, with a father who was a NASA research scientist. There were a lot of African American women who worked there as “computers” — essentially mathematical geniuses — and to her, it was always normal to see African American women in this role. It was only later that it occurred to her how significant and under-acknowledged they were.

It really goes to show how one’s view of the world and the future can be shaped by the environment in which one grows up. It made me think of all the uproar many years ago about how girls’ toys were very limiting in their scope — always about fashion and beauty and cute things — but boys’ toys were more about action and adventure. It is easier to aspire to something greater if you are shown what is possible.

Early on, Shetterly introduces Dorothy Vaughan, one of the mathematical geniuses. Dorothy was originally a high school teacher, but applied for other jobs over the summer break to help provide for her family. One summer, in the midst of WWII, she applied for two jobs: one to launder uniforms for the military (a job that would, surprisingly, pay better than what she was getting as a teacher (African American teachers were paid much lower than their white counterparts)), and the other to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

The book is written really well, in a conversational way, and I’m quite keen to keep reading, so this is all for this week’s post. I will almost certainly write more about this book as I read it.