Hidden Figures · 2:08am
I just got back from watching Hidden Figures, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. In case you haven't seen the trailer...
The movie follows Katherine Johnson and her coworkers Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who were instrumental in the US space program. I highly recommend the movie to anyone interested in space, history, computing, or mathematics, and for everyone else there's plenty of comedy in between the drama.
When I saw the trailer for the first time, my mind instantly shot back to high school. My junior year, we had a series of "humanities" projects assigned jointly by the English and History teachers. Each student or small group of students picked a single subject, and created several presentations about the subject throughout history over the course of the school year.
My chosen subject was "computers", and my teachers were uncertain about approving my selection, since the first project's time period was several centuries before the computers as we know them today would be invented. I convinced them to allow my choice by showing them When Computers Were Human by David Alan Grier.
While Grier's book delves much further back into the history of the job title "computer" than Hidden Figures does (as far back as calculations for the 1758 approach of Halley's Comet), the trailer reminded me of those high school presentations, because the book did talk about the rooms full of women double-checking the work of the computing machines at NASA, exactly what this movie is about.
The movie exaggerates the talent of human computers somewhat, specifically because it's following the life of some exceptions. The three main characters of Hidden Figures are overqualified for the computer position, but they're stuck there because of their race and gender. Most human computers would be given a sheet of relatively simple arithmetic which was the result of some more complicated equation decomposed by a more educated mathematician. The sheets would be collected and the results recombined by a mathematician to find the answer to the complicated equation. And for most of the people paid to be a computer, that was about the extent of their mathematics capabilities.