Ever heard of Vera Cooper Rubin? She was an American astronomer who discovered that what we see in the sky is just the tip of the universe.
Or Katherine Johnson, an African-American physicist and mathematician who contributed to NASA’s “space race” program in the 1960s?
Silenced, excluded and unacknowledged, they remain hidden from the public as to how much they have contributed as women scientists to great scientific developments.
Or perhaps not?
“Hidden Figures,” which was released on Dec. 25, tells the story of a group of unrecognized female African-American physicists, engineers and mathematicians in the 1960s.
These women were known as “human computers” because they did mathematical calculations by hand before the invention of mainframe computers. As history would later reveal (in July 1969, when mankind first landed on the moon) their contributions to NASA were crucial to the space race.
In the movie, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) overcome racial barriers to arrive at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to work in the West Campus.
NASA wants the best and brightest brains to help the U.S. beat the Soviet Union. So at the time, the search for the best minds to create precise mathematical calculations means that Johnson and Jackson are called in because they have the knowledge and skills.
They assist their white male supervisors in planning the first spaceship’s trajectory path with their calculations and engineering expertise.
John Glenn, the first American to travel to space in the Friendship II, helps break the racial barrier when he specifically asks Johnson to perform the calculations for the splashdown for his spaceship.
Meanwhile Vaughan struggles to be promoted to a supervisor’s position, which her white female supervisor Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst) makes clear is not going to happen.
Vaughan’s experiences convey how racist behavior is perceived by African American women. Spoiler alert, by becoming the first African American manager at NASA, Vaughan shows us how we make use of opportunities to elevate ourselves.
For females (including myself) seeking degrees in the STEM field, experiences of past female scientists have certainly paved the way. While we have progressed from the days of racial segregation, in contemporary times we still face challenges, the most significant being gender inequality in the workplace, resembling those experienced by Vaughan and other noteworthy “hidden figures.”
“Hidden Figures” has become the highest grossing Oscar contender for the best picture of the year. Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and directed by Theodore Melfi, it’s an inspiring film that teaches us that it is the content of your character that matters, not the color of your skin.
February is Black History Month, so celebrate that history with this film. Head on over to your local theater and prepare yourselves for a film of rich history, moving-scenes, and outstanding acting.
Come to think of it, I may go watch it again! Popcorn, anyone?
—By Riya Rampalli