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‘Hidden Figures’ selected for One Book program

Black women scientists at NASA fight for equality while propelling U.S. into the Space Race

“Hidden Figures,” the true story of three pathbreaking black women scientists whose work enabled NASA’s first manned mission to orbit the Earth, is the One Book One Northwestern all-campus read for Northwestern University’s 2019-20 academic year. 

Hidden Figures

For the first time in One Book history, all first-year undergraduate and graduate will be able to download the eBook “Hidden Figures” through Amazon and receive a free 6-month membership to Amazon Prime. 

A No. 1 New York Times bestseller and the basis for an Academy Award-nominated blockbuster movie, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly, celebrates previously unsung heroes Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who overcame sexism and racism in 1960s America to make history and pave the way for generations of scientists. 

Their story has captivated and inspired audiences, illuminating the unfettered power of human innovation when prejudices are set aside. 

"The universe is filled with amazing physics, chemistry and biology, which is best revealed through a diverse group of explorers,” said Dean of The Graduate School and One Book co-chair Teresa Woodruff. ‘“Hidden Figures’ tells the story of that diversity — men and women, white and black — working together at the cusp of human knowledge and at the lunar edge of the universe to make the impossible possible.”   

The struggle for equality by Katherine Johnson and other black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA's Langley Research Center in the 1950s and 1960s occurred at the height of the Space Race and the civil rights movement, when segregation was still legally enforced in the U.S.

"Understanding the challenges and successes of previous generations of women in minorities in STEM fields can offer today's students a roadmap to chart their own futures in these careers,” said Shetterly, who is also the founder of The Human Computer Project, a digital archive dedicated to profiling the women who worked as computers at NASA (and its predecessor NACA). 

Shetterly will give a keynote address on the Evanston and Chicago campuses on Oct. 17, 2019. 

Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961. Shepard was the first American to enter space. The following year, Johnson was asked to verify the results made by electronic computers to calculate the orbit for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, which made the U.S. a true contender in the Space Race with the Soviet Union. 

Shepard and Glenn became instantaneous icons, while Johnson and her counterparts remained in obscurity for decades. 

“That the story took this long to surface makes us think about how many other stories of scientific excellence have been relegated to the collective memory of the few who knew them best,” said Heather Pinkett, an associate professor of molecular biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and One Book co-chair. “It is an inspirational story of fighting to do what you do best, what fuels you, when the world around you has yet to catch up to the times.”

The One Book One Northwestern program is sponsored by the Office of the President and will include related films, lectures and other programming throughout the coming academic year. The campus-wide read is chosen by the University’s One Book selection committee. 

“This book unifies the NU universe, including undergraduate and graduate students with faculty and staff in Chicago and Qatar and NU alums scattered around the globe,” Woodruff said. “Exploring themes of what is needed to take bold leaps, to enable success, to work across differences and to reveal what could not be known without every voice in our community is what our year will be about.” 

Students are invited to apply to serve as One Book Fellows via the online application. The deadline has been extended to Friday, April 19.

Questions should be directed to One Book One Northwestern Director Nancy Cunniff by email or phone at 847-467-2294.