As wonderful as the film Hidden Figures is, there is much more to the story of the black female mathematicians who worked behind the scenes to help catapult the US space program to success. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the full story in the book that inspired the blockbuster film (and bears the same name). Those pioneering mathematical geniuses were Hidden Figures to the rest of the world, but they were neighbors, icons, church moms, and sorority leaders in the Virginia community where Shetterly spent her childhood. As familiar as they were to her, she did not comprehend how groundbreaking they were until she was old enough to fully understand the barriers and brutality of life under Jim Crow. She eventually wrote the book that she wanted to read.
Shetterly recently delivered the annual Carlson lecture at the University of Minnesota, where she highlighted the female mathematicians’ ability to reach beyond social constraints of the day while also looking beyond existing mathematical theories to find the right models to support the trajectory for human travel into space. Following the lecture, Shetterly sat down with Michele Norris, the former NPR host who is now executive director of The Bridge, the Aspen Institute’s new program on race and cultural identity.
In a wide-ranging and quite spirited discussion, Shetterly talked about researching the book, adapting the book for Hollywood and the next three books she wants to write about hidden figures in other fields like business, medicine, and entertainment.