Imagination, justice, and uncovering hidden figures

As part of Mathemati-Con, Margot Lee Shetterly was awarded with the JPBM Communications award, and subsequently we were treated to an interview with her conducted by the always fabulous and brilliant Talithia Williams. Here is my attempt to write down the interview, but I am the slowest person when it comes to typing, so a full transcript this is not. Enjoy.

Margot Lee Shetterly. Photo by Kate Awtrey.

Talithia Williams: Welcome! Super excited to be on stage with you. What’s it like being in the spotlight?

Margot Lee Shetterly: I mostly wrote the book for myself, about people I knew and a world I knew. When it became film it got filtered through this other world: Hollywood, glamour, famous people. I was amazed by how they turned this quotidian thing into something glamorous. I had been to my Father’s office in Langley, and when I saw the sets for the movie I was like “Oh my god, this is really glamorous”. This started a fairytale season of having people like Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Taraji P Henson, trying to tell this story, commiting to the story and portraying these characters in a way that was truthful, with all the drama, the triumph, and the difficulties. It was an amazing time but also very disorienting to be in a magazine shoot with Janelle Monae.

Left to right on stage: Margot Lee Shetterly and Talithia Williams. Left to right on the screen: Margot Lee Shetterly and Janelle Monae.

TW: (Playfully) You’re holding your won up there! (Audience laughs.) So you have a very interesting background, you worked in investment banking, lived in Mexico, and then submitted the book proposal that led to the movie. So the book wasn’t even written when it was optioned to become a movie.

MLS: I took sort of a circuitous path to the book, but also my entire background led to the book. My father was scientist at Langley, my mother went to school with Katherine Johnson’s daughters. My Dad tried to make me into an engineer and scientist, and I did take lots of math and science classes in college, but instead I became investment banker. A little different, but still a career that involved numbers, so that background came in handy. I went to NY worked in investment banking and then went to startup media businesses. After that, my husband and I moved to Mexico, and started an English language magazine for expats. So lots of entrepreneurial ventures, and other adventures.

I came back to visit my parents in Hampton, and ran into a former human computer (who I knew as my Sunday school teacher). Dad started talking about the women and the work they did as human computers, and he clearly had tremendous respect for them. Katherine Johnson was the one most connected with the astronauts. My husband was like “I’ve never heard this before”, and for me these were stories I knew growing up. But we got interested in why were these women working as mathematicians back then, when we all know now women can’t do math. (Laughs again.)

I started working on the book in 2010, the publisher picked it up in 2014, and a couple of months later some movie producers optioned the book proposal. The book was published in September 2016, and the movie came out Dec 2016. I was working fast to finish my work at same time as movie – it’s either the best thing or worse thing that ever happened to me. But all that ends well…

The filmmakers were phenomenal, and were committed to getting it right. Rudy Horne was the math consultant, and taught both young and adult Katherine Johnson the math they needed for the movie. Taraji P Henson is apparently quite math phobic, and Rudy talked her through her math phobia – Rudy was a true hidden figure behind movie.

TW: Thanks for remembering Rudy, he was such a special person to have in community, and we miss him. So I spent four summers at NASA, and had no idea these women had come before me. For me sitting in the movie I was like are you kidding me? I persevered in spite of not knowing, but how many women might have pushed themselves had they seen this movie? Have you heard other stories like this, of women who wished they had had the movie or the book when they were younger?

MLS: Women of color who are older do say that they didn’t know that and wished they had. They find things to connect with, even in the present day, and while a lot of things have changed there are many other things that should, but haven’t. Girls who are 15-16 come up to me and say they love math and see these women as role models. But you know what’s really great ? Young men and young boys find them inspiring too! This story has a special resonance for women and in particular women of color, but these women really are math heroes and American heroes for people of all backgrounds.

Margot Lee Shetterly and Talithia Williams, with Katherine Johnson in the background. Photo by Annette Emerson.

TW: In these divisive times, it is so difficult to find something that can galvanize us, but the movie does this, everyone is on the same team trying to win the space race. Did you have any idea that your first book could have this impact, of bringing people together?

MLS: It’s all very overwhelming and surprising. Everything has been very positive. There is all this history that happened in my hometown of Hampton, and all these women who were remarkable but very normal, people you would see in the grocery store, at Church, they were all very low key about their accomplishments. And really they just felt like they were doing their job, and that there was no need to make a fuss about that. Also, they worked in a very secretive organization, you couldn’t just talk about this work when you got home or to your friends.  There is always a  worry that there are spies etc, so they came out of that sensibility of not talking about their work.

Also, they had other aspects to their lives. They had children, husbands, roles in their community, church, they were not just about their work. When I was interviewing them about their work, many years after their careers had ended, they were surprised anyone was interested in their work, and grateful for the attention and interest. I would often hear things like “Well I did my job, did it well, I loved my job — that’s what I was doing it, so I don’t know why you would find that interesting. I learned so much from them.

TW: I love how you talk abut how balanced and well rounded they were. In movies mathematicians are often portrayed as crazy! But in this story they get portrayed as both ordinary AND extraordinary.

MLS: The idea of the lone genius, of the person who can’t talk to people, is really pervasive in STEM. But in reality so much of STEM is collaborative, it requires you to work with people, collaborate, get feedback, communicate your work, get critiqued, etc. That is probably surprising for people who don’t work in STEM. The reality is that every human endeavor at that scale requires a huge number of people and collaboration, communication, analysis, etc. You can see in the documents of the organizational history of NASA, that in the DNA of that place is collaboration.

TW: How did you come about the documents and finding the background for all the people in your book?

MLS: It took a lot of following breadcrumbs. Fortunately the National Center for Aeronautics and NASA were agencies that preserved their scientific and organizational heritage. The National Archives in Philadelphia has documents from the very beginning. Organizational papers, research papers, technical reports, an incredible scientific heritage. Everything from the very beginning of what would become NASA. You can learn a lot from what is there. I would look at these papers and listen to these stories and they would tell me about working on a project (like understanding wake turbulence), things we take for granted now that they were working on back then. It was great fortune to have talked to those people in person, and to then have this archive to read about whatever Katherine Johnson was talking about in ore detail. I had enough calculus, math, and engineering background, and an understanding of what my dad did to not be afraid to dig into reports. I did buy some aeronautical textbooks to get at least a bit of understanding of the reports.

TW: We celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday. I love it when you said this: “Hidden Figures is a work of imagination…” (I couldn’t find the exact quote, but it also connects with MLK and the imagination and ability to dream that led to the Civil Rights movement.)  Can you talk about this importance of imagination, creativity, dreaming of the impossible?

MLS: I recently found out that Dr. King was a huge Star Trek fan! Obviously it was amazing show, but one reason he was a fan is because it was a hugely idealistic thing, an empowering idealistic vision of what might be possible, of seemingly different people coming together to work on a common mission. This is also true of the civil rights movement, and the space program. In the space program, obviously a big part was the race with the Soviet Union, but also a big driving force was the desire of expanding human knowledge, and looking at vast space.  If we’re this speck in the universe, why can’t we solve our problems? If we can go to the moon, we can do anything.

As a writer, even though this is nonfiction there is a lot of imagination required. For example, I was sometimes taking bits and pieces from the telephone books, and used it to figure out who sat next to whom in which offices, since they had the same extensions. It’s like you have a time machine with bits of information, and slowly you start forming a greater vision of the world you’re writing about. Imagination is an underrated part of STEM, there’s a lot of dreaming and “what if”-ing and beauty. I loved seeing that in the work these women did, it was like listening to great music.

TW: That’s how we feel about mathematics! So what is an important takeaway for American citizens?

MLS: This is the way things happen, we have coffee, go to work, go about our day, and what we’ve done is history, the sum total of what we do seems mundane, but maybe 50 years from now people might say “wow all those people sitting in a room in Maryland in 2019, and they had no idea they were at the cusp of this big thing.” It is all of these things, American history. We Americans are very particular, we love great sweeping stories, where in the end we came together and we did it! This is a big part of the American psyche. But this is a big part of what that group of women had, all these types of people coming together to solve some huge problems. For me more exciting than seeing that one person who did that one thing, I want to see all of the people coming together and solving problems.

TW: And so what’s next?

MLS: I’m reseaching another book. One of the things that happens is that there are so many awesome people. But I’m working on a book that takes place in Baltimore at around the same time period, focusing on African American entrepreneurs, business people, who were doing great things, all taking place within key events of the 20-th century. These are very interesting people, and right now I’m doing research again.

TW: When will this come out?

MLS: I don’t know, yet.

TW: We need to put some movie pressure on you!

MLS: I just need to sit in my geek room and do research.

TW: We (mathematicians) have lots of geek rooms you can sit in! You’re welcome to use them.

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