Hidden Figures is a 2016 biographical drama based on a book of the same name. The movie celebrates the work of three mathematicians/engineers/computer programmers whose work helped propel America into space and win the space race against the Soviet Union. It garnered positive reviews from critics and has been nominated for numerous awards.
Scientists and mathematicians are not hard to find in a place like NASA, currently as well as in the time period in which the story took place (1950s and 1960s). What set these three individuals apart is that they were female and African Americans. They are Katherine Goble Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe). Thus this movie touches several dimensions – race, gender, history of the space race, and of course the gripping human stories of these three individuals as they struggled to excel in an endeavor they were not expected to excel in.
Math is not just the backdrop of the story; it is front and center in the movie. Of course, the movie does not delve into the details of the math (if it did, it would not gross $129 million worldwide). But the movie is a story of the triumph of math. The math equations worked out by the central characters helped make the space flights safe and successful. There is another sense that it is a story pf the triumph of math.
According to this piece from The Atlantic, math at one point in time was the province only for those who were white and male. Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson and other human computers (later turned mathematicians and engineers) at NASA were allowed to play a pivotal role in the space program because of their math prowess. In fact, due to the societal stereotypes and racial biases of the time, they would normally not even be hired in the first place.
Katherine Goble Johnson was a child prodigy and for a while her talent was underutilized. Then her moment came when NASA needed someone who had skills in geometry and could apply the skills in the calculation for flight trajectories in the Mercury program. The stake was obviously high. NASA was under tremendous pressure to catch up with the Russian. Wrong or inaccurate calculation could mean loss of life and national disgrace. This tension is best dramatized in a scene in which John Glenn wanted to have the numbers checked by the girl (i.e. Johnson). As Glenn was about to be sent off for his orbital mission in 1962, Glenn insisted on having Johnson run through the equations to make sure the trajectory was safe.
Here is a post that focuses on the mathematical achievements of Johnson.
So math is an equalizer. These mathematicians and engineers had a seat at the table because of math. This is an all around wonderful story. This article from Scientific American gives more information on the mathematical and programming work of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson. This is a piece from NASA on human computers.
Math is as much of an equalizer now as then. I hope the movie inspires youngsters to pay more attention to math and science. Math makes space travel possible. Anyone can learn and excel in math. A whole new realm of possibilities is awaiting for the next generation to explore and unlock.
Due to the popular movie, the story of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson is now well known. A lot of results come up from Googling their names and the movie. Here’s one piece from Forbes. Here’s the Wikepedia entry about the movie. Here’s two articles (here and here) from npr.org.