Sep 13, 2018

[Books] Hidden Figures Audible Review

America's history is certainly a most colorful one for a wide variety of reasons. From the very birth of that nation to its long journey to where the country is today, so many things had to happen in a very particular manner. Some good things good and some things bad - it's all part of what has become history.

Hidden Figures tries to shine a spotlight on some of the lesser known heroes of the space race. And we're not talking about anyone who got to go into space. We're not even talking about someone who was in Mission Control.

Instead this book focuses on the lives of African American female mathematicians, which feels like the minority lottery when you string all those words together.

Synopsis: Hidden Figures is a non-fiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book covers the history of these Human Computers from 1930 through the space race of the 1960s. This review covers the Audible audiobook of the book.

The book actually starts during World War II when the war opened up doors for women to do more work. And one of the more unusual jobs that ended up being created was the role of the Human Computer, this being a mathematician hired to run computations for aeronautical experiments. Basically it's all the stuff we trust computers to do after the engineers have run all of their experiments in the big wind tunnel.

But this not only opened the door for women, but it oddly intersected with civil rights struggle of the African-American community. And beyond the initial war effort, the subsequent space race with Russia called for Human Computers to work again, this time on the more complex computations needed to figure out how to put a man on the moon.

What I Liked: The level of detail that goes into this book is pretty phenomenal as it covers a lot of stories throughout the history of pretty much modern aviation and the space program. But instead of focusing on the big heroes in the sky, we're in a building following the lives of women running math computations at desks. And the book manages to make this work sound incredibly exciting without actually going too deep into the math itself.

And the book really does a lot to talk about these women not just as parts of a larger machine but as people. So we come to better appreciate the challenges of their daily commute or the casual discrimination they experienced at the cafeteria and all the other complications of being an African-American woman in that period. Thus the book manages to convey some very important ideas that really need to be talked about more when it comes to racism, the role of women and other things.

What Could Have Been Better: The ebb and flow of this narrative is a rather organic one, especially since it's not focused on the live of just one Human Computer but a good number of them. And the level of detail I spoke about earlier means a lot of different people that you need to keep track of, which can be a little dizzying as an audiobook experience.

The book has a lot to say but a times it feels like they have just a little too much to talk about to manage effectively. The main historical arc about the contribution of these women to the space program is already a very big thing to cover. But so is the civil rights struggle and the fight for equality for women. I'm not saying they should have disregarded these other topics but at times it does feel like not all of these subjects are given the weight and importance of these big ticket items. It's a lot to ask from any author.

TL;DR: Hidden Figures is a great documentary in the form of a book and the vivid detail that it goes into is amazing. This is a very important story that needed to be told. Thus the book gets a great 5 stories of everyday heroism out of a possible 5.

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