MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Hidden Figures (2016)
Allison Schroeder (writer) / Theodore Melfi (director and writer)
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Hidden Figures is a "Hollywood-ized" version of the true story of three women who worked in the "colored computers" unit at NASA's Langley Research Center. In particular, it follows Katherine (Goble) Johnson who computed flight trajectories for NASA missions from the first manned missions through the shuttle program, Dorothy Vaughan who was one of NACA/NASA's first computer programmers, and Mary Jackson who overcame prejudice and legal obstacles to earn the official title of "engineer".

This film combines two different cinematic genres which are currently popular, that of the space race thriller (like "Apollo 13") and the 21st century look back at the social injustices of the 20th century (like "The Help"). It is successful in doing so, resulting in a film that is enjoyable to watch and quite moving, but (IMHO) uses a bit too many of the cliches and follows the Hollywood formulas for these categories of film a bit too closely.

Cynically, the purpose of this movie is to entertain audiences and to make money for the people and companies that produced it. More idealistically, it has the goal of actually making the world a better place. It certainly seems to have achieved the first two goals. In fact, the show I attended was completely sold out. Moreover, I am sure that this well acted and emotionally potent film will have some positive social influence. It will inspire talented individuals (whether mathematically talented or other sorts of talents) to challenge the prejudices (based on gender, race or whatever) that stand in their way. And, it will also hopefully help to eliminate some of those prejudices by showing how insidious and misguided they truly are. Finally, it brings deserved attention and accolades to some people who might otherwise not have received this public recognition. However, it is really not the purpose of this website to analyze the film on these merits, and so I will instead turn my attention to viewing it as an example of mathematical fiction.

Like A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game, this movie is based on non-fictional accounts of actual events. (See Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, which relates the stories of these three women and others who worked in the West Computing Unit at Langley without embellishment.) Consequently, there may be some question about why it is being included here in a database of mathematical fiction. My opinion on this is that the decisions made in adapting the stories to the screen (including some decisions that are merely about the artistic portrayal of the truth and some that, I would argue, bend the truth beyond its breaking point) bring the work into the realm of fiction.

Unlike either of those other two movies, Hidden Figures does not utilize the annoying stereotypes of mathematicians as being anti-social and/or mentally unstable. It shows the women to be ordinary people with families, friends, humor and normal human emotions. I am glad about that.

Like those two film adaptations, it also shows mathematics to be important, a bit of positive propaganda for my own field of expertise for which I am am also grateful.

However, it has in common with those films that the discussion of mathematics and the level of dramatic tension are twisted by Hollywood almost beyond recognition. A lovely anecdote that the real Katherine (Goble) Johnson relates in this interview, that John Glenn specifically asked for her to manually check the trajectories generated by an electronic computer, gets turned into a nail-bitingly tense scene that I do not think ever actually happened. Similarly, although she did have a reputation for being more interested in the physics behind her computations than many of the other (human) computers at NASA, I am somewhat skeptical of the film's claim that she figured out a method for determining the so-called go/no-go point when none of the mathematicians, physicists or engineers could do so.

In fact, let me say a little about that scene because it is an example of some explicit discussion of mathematics in the film. When the capsule is in orbit, its trajectory would be essentially elliptical. And, when it is in free fall it would be essentially parabolic. According to the film, even weeks before the launch they had not yet worked out how to transition from one to the other, how to figure out when he should leave orbit so that he would land in the correct location. The film shows a room filled with mathematicians and physicists staring at Katherine Johnson's computations on a chalk board trying to figure out how to do this, and it appears that nobody has an idea of how to get this "new math". Then her boss, portrayed by Kevin Costner, suggests that they might need old math instead. Inspired by this, Johnson realizes that what they need is Euler's method. She looks it up in a book and is apparently able to quickly and single-handedly work out the answer using it, writing it back up on the chalk board for everyone to see. Now, although it is nice to see mathematics portrayed in a movie as being important and exciting, I have trouble believing a lot of things about this scene, but mostly the idea that the use of Euler's method to approximate the trajectories would not have been obvious to most of the people in that room. In fact, I'm guessing that is what a lot of the work of the West Computing unit would have involved from the beginning. [Note Added March 2017: I had a chance to speak with mathematician Rudy Horne who served as an advisor on the film. Euler's method for working out the approximate trajectories was among the mathematical ideas he had suggested to the filmmakers when they were consulted with him before the film was written. Apparently, they liked the idea and included it. But, Horne does seem to agree that the particular way it comes up in the film, as a surprising last-minute epiphany, is not realistic. ]

One odd thing to me is that the word "mathematician" is never mentioned in the film. The book on which the film is based uses that word quite frequently (in fact, it is in the sub-title). So, I'm curious to know why it seems to have been excluded from the film.

This is actually one of many works of mathematical fiction about female mathematicians and the difficulties they face in the field of mathematics. But, there are really not many that address race in the same way. In addition to Hidden Figures, the works featuring black mathematicians in which race is a major issue are The Blue Door, The Old Arithmetician and Against the Odds. Race is also a major issue in Apartheid, Superstrings and Mordecai Thubana and it is an unmentioned subtext in Distress where the world's most famous mathematical physicist just happens to be an African woman. I feel strange listing these works of fiction together and calling them "similar", but it may be of interest to someone that they all feature black mathematicians, an unfortunate rarity in both reality and fiction.

In summary, this is an excellent film that reminds us of the unfairness of "Jim Crow" America (and thus may hopefully inspire us to address social injustices that continue today), portrays math as important (and so may convince some talented young people to enter the field), and inspires us with the (mostly) true story of some impressive real women. I just wish it had been a bit more subtle and strayed farther from the tested formulas of Hollywood.

More information about this work can be found at www.imdb.com.
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Hidden Figures
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  2. The Imitation Game by Morten Tyldum (director) / Graham Moore (screenplay)
  3. An Old Arithmetician by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
  4. Against the Odds by Martin Gardner
  5. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  6. Continuums by Robert Carr
  7. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  8. Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya by Joan Spicci
  9. Mrs. Einstein by Anna McGrail
  10. Emilie: La Marquise Du Ch√Ętelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson
Ratings for Hidden Figures:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (1 votes)
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Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)
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Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifCool/Heroic Mathematicians, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Mathematical Physics,
MediumFilms,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)