Hidden Figures is satisfying as a film, but provides even greater depth and reward as a reading experience. The hard-core math in the story is minimal but intriguing as these brilliant ladies literally spent weeks and reams of paper on a single equation. I’ve got a master’s degree and I teach Calculus I and II at a college, and there were multiple moments when I simply set the book down and went “Yikes!” Consider the Apollo 11 dilemma: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin zipping around on the moon doing NASA chores, while the lunar module continues to orbit. If the rendezvous doesn’t come off exactly as calculated, those two astronauts literally miss the bus!
But even more compelling than the mind-boggling calculating is this tale of triumph over entrenched racism and bigotry. Back in the era of this story, the state of Virginia was so dedicated to the ugly heritage of segregation they would literally give African-American students scholarships, making sure they were “out-of-state” grants. As in: “Just get the hell out of here.” “In Prince Edward County, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system rather than integrate. . . . Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.”
I was especially stirred by the endless details of how African-American communities literally rose up in a spirit of excellence to make sure their own black young people had the chance to excel. They ran their own proms, had cotillion societies, scraped together field trips, and a million other projects, in order to defeat the pernicious lie of “separate but equal.”
The book is poetic in many places, and fascinating throughout. The story literally reaches for the stars, and giving it back five of Amazon’s doesn’t even come close.