As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to readers’ advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, some very smart women lead me down a winding path.
Hidden Figures. color. Theodore Melfi, Levantine Films. Apr. 2017. DVD UPC N/A. DRAMA/BIOPIC
Based on true events and adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction title of the same name, this biopic film about competency, genius, discrimination, and determination runs on two tracks. Set during the 1950s space race, when the Soviet Union beat the United States into the sky and American astronaut John Glenn followed suit by orbiting the earth the following year, it also depicts the Jim Crow era, when there were “colored” sections of public libraries and buses. As plenty of books and movies have proved, the first story line is gripping enough on its own, while the second is infuriating and heartbreaking. Combined, they prompt theatergoers to take selfies in front of the film poster upon leaving. The story recounts the contributions and struggles of NASA scientists Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who began their work as “human computers” doing calculations in a segregated part of the NASA campus in Hampton, VA. They went on to become heroines of the space age—even if their roles have been largely overlooked until recently. Simultaneously joyful, smart, immensely entertaining, and elegantly confrontational of the prejudices the women endured, this film speeds by with the magnetic pull of achievement.
Holt, Nathalia. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Back Bay: Little, Brown. Jan. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780316338905. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316338912. HIST
This detailed and inspiring account about the contributions of U.S. female scientists takes place on the opposite side of the country from Hidden Figures, at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, where they were hard at work supplying male engineers with the mathematics necessary for space exploration. Holt’s recounting of their expertise and challenges makes good company for fans of Hidden Figures, as both are rich in knowledge and heart. Quickly paced and deeply engaging, the narrative is arranged by decade, spanning the 1940s through today. Each section focuses on several different women, providing intimate stories of their personal and professional achievements.
Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Touchstone. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9781451617535. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781451617542. HIST
Another chronicle of women’s service during World War II to efforts largely run and controlled by men is this story-powered history of the atomic bomb. Exploring the lives of a number of women in Oak Ridge, TN, Kiernan tells of their secret work in a secret city bound by strict rules. Seeking to advance, contribute to the war effort, and create a life away from the strictures of home, they sought a litany of work—from mathematicians to secretaries, and much more—without knowing that they were part of the Manhattan Project, an undertaking led by the United States, with support from the UK and Canada, to produce the first nuclear weapons. Kiernan’s multifaceted narrative is infused with the personalities of these women and the science that enabled the top-secret project.
Sobel, Dava. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. Viking. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780670016952. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780698148697. HIST
NASA was not the first, or only, institution to rely upon female human computers to do critical work in aid of scientific progress. In the late 19th century, women such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt were working for the Harvard College Observatory, gazing at glass plates, early photos of the stars that make up the glass universe of the title. These plates generated a catalog of what was known but also provided a bevy of research about the unknown. A group of brilliant women at Harvard mined those clues and discovered what stars are made of. They created detailed systems of classification that are still used today, found ways to measure space distances, and discovered novas. These astounding achievements—largely funded by the wealth of two women—changed our understanding of the universe. With grace, energy, and lush descriptions of science and character, Sobel takes readers into the world of these talented individuals.
Jahren, Hope. Lab Girl. Vintage. Mar. 2017. 303p. ISBN 9781101873724. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101874943. MEMOIR
Thankfully, women in STEM fields have progressed beyond serving as “human computers,” unheralded and definitely limited in what they were allowed to do. For a modern take on a female scientist, turn to this debut memoir by an eminent geobiologist. In a wide and generous manner, Jahren shares everything from the memories of early play days in her father’s lab to the days she spends in her own lab. She talks about her relationship with partner Bill, a brilliant scientist who is central to her life. She writes poetically about flowers, seeds, and dirt, making for wonderful reading from a number of angles. Yet in the context of Hidden Figures, what might be most notable is how Jahren discusses her craft, illustrating clearly the power and pleasures of skill and achievement.
Maddox, Brenda. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Harper Perennial. 2003. 400p. ISBN 9780060985080. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062283504. BIOG
Like the women of Hidden Figures, Rosalind Franklin (1920–58) is an unsung hero of science. Her work as a crystalographer was vital to deciphering the structure of DNA. Indeed, it illustrated the genetic elements. Further, her data was critical to discoveries by molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick. While the story of what actually happened is debated still today, her accomplishments were obfuscated in Watson’s book Double Helix. And as one of the four key figures working on DNA, Franklin alone was not given leading credit. Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology (after Franklin’s death). It is clear that Wilkins, who operated in the same lab as Franklin, shared her work with Watson and Crick without her consent. Complete in the details and work of science, this biography helps place Franklin back into the story of DNA.
October Sky. color. 108 mins. Joe Johnston, Universal Pictures. 2017. Blu-ray UPC 025192072871. $14.99. DRAMA/BIOG
Hidden Figures is likely to prompt a desire to watch more movies about the space race. Suggest this inspirational film, based on Homer Hickam Jr.’s memoir, Rocket Boys, about a boy from a coal mining town who dreams big, really big. Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants to build rockets. His struggle to break out from under the expectations of his small community, especially the demands and boundaries his father (Chris Cooper) tries to impose, power this feature. From initial trials and science fairs to assembling rockets that travel for miles, Homer continues to strive for the life he wants and to use his mind to its fullest potential, very much like the women in Hidden Figures. The two films further share a similar emphasis on setting and characterization, as well as the pleasures of learning and overcoming barriers at a time when America needed everyone to lean in.
Race. color. 134 mins. Stephen Hopkins, Universal Studios. 2016. Blu-ray UPC 025192350382. $14.99. BIOG/DRAMA
The dual meaning of the title will not be lost on viewers as they watch Jesse Owens (Stephan James) move from a member of the Ohio State University track team to an Olympic champion, earning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games. Through his many track and field triumphs, Owens faced pernicious racism. At the postvictory celebration at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, Owens had to enter through the service door, not allowed to use the front entrance even though the event was largely held in his honor. Like Hidden Figures, this film juxtaposes the triumph of talent and hard work against the large-scale and daily effects of prejudice and bias, offering a kindred blend of family life and professional success and an engrossing story of dignity, celebration, and perseverance.
Selma. color. 128 mins. Ava DuVernay, Paramount. 2017. Blu-ray UPC 032429258069. $22.99. DRAMA/BIOG
Another film providing critical context to Hidden Figures is this Oscar-nominated part biography, part history, tracing the events surrounding the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, AL, marches. The film dramatizes key figures Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelow) and John Lewis (Stephan James) as well as Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and George Wallace (Tim Roth). This stirring and illuminating film illustrates the horrors of American culture running parallel to the space race. Hidden Figures takes place three years before Selma, making what Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson achieved all the more impressive. From Dr. King’s speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the church bombings and images of police armed with whips and riding horses charging protesters, DuVernay’s film makes clear the risks and stakes of the civil rights movement.
The Right Stuff. color. 193 mins. Philip Kaufman, Warner Bros. 2013. Blu-ray UPC 883929180066. $19.99. HISTORICAL DRAMA
Yet one more film set during the early space program, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, is this three-hour extravaganza of flight—from breaking the sound barrier to orbiting the earth. Fans of Hidden Figures will not be surprised that none of the women who made the flights possible are ever on screen, but there are moments that overlap well with the film—including some of the engineers (and their attitudes), the moment John Glenn’s (Ed Harris) flight was in peril, and, in a lovely nod between the films, a reinterpretation of the iconic “hallway walk.” Kaufman’s film wonderfully shifts in focus, deftly painting a thorough portrait of what it took to land humankind into space. While Hidden Figures tells that story by examining the intellectual efforts, this film portrays men willing to risk their lives in the sky. Destined to remain a classic of the genre.
Katherine G. Johnson, now 97, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Find the ceremony here (Johnson’s part begins at 30:28).