Hidden Figures makes superheroes out of mathematicians


A few years ago, I was Freshly Pressed for writing a blog post about math.

I’m really proud of this because not only was I Freshly Pressed, I was Pressed for writing about something I am so uncomfortable with.

When I heard about the movie Hidden Figures, I knew I had to see it. I mean, who would have thought that in 2017, a top grossing movie would be one about black women doing math for NASA?

If this movie was made in 1998, it would have been Ben Affleck flying into space to rescue us from an asteroid. (And, I don’t want to miss a thing.)

But it’s 2017 and nerdy is the new flash. As Hidden Figures so inspiringly taught us, math is the backbone of today’s technology.


As a daughter of an programmer, it was also really exciting to see them roll the first IBMs (International Business Machine, whoop!) into NASA. I practically squealed when Octavia Spencer’s character steals a book on Fortran from the white segregated library. Not because it was so ballsy but because I’ve never heard Fortran mentioned in mainstream media. And when she whipped out those punchcards… oh no you didn’t!

Sure, the scripting was cheesy but it was thrilling to see three minority women confidently take on math and out-calculate not just any men, but NASA’s top engineers. I hope it inspires a whole new generation of girls and women to never back down from a difficult equation or a top spot in the conference room.


The Fear of Math

There’s a popular NYTimes op’ed titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” which questions the need for kids to learn advanced math. The author cites that failing algebra is a large reason why many students drop out of high school and post-secondary school. Moreover, algebra is not really required for most jobs or liberal arts studies.

This is the wrong idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate math with a passion – mainly because I’m absolutely petrified of it. The fear of math is so common, it has a name: number anxiety. In high school calculus, I started panicking before I finished reading equations. Once, my father, a computer programmer, spent hours outside the bathroom door trying to coax me out while I bawled my eyes out after he tried to teach me basic algebra. They enrolled me in Kumon where I learned the art of cheating.

In North America, we are taught to fear math. We are told that math is the sport of geniuses and the rest of us mere mortals should be very afraid. In Asia, kids are taught that anyone can do math with practice and on average, they do better.

But over here, the fear transfers from parents to teachers to kids to popular culture. There’s a similar problem in the African-American community with swimming. Parents who don’t swim are afraid that their kids will drown so they don’t enroll them in swimming lessons. But kids who can’t swim are at the highest risk for drowning. We can’t keep kids from learning advanced math simply because we’re afraid they will fail – doing so discourages them from ever succeeding.

You know what else is really, really difficult? Learning a second language. Floating on your back. Asking for a raise.

None of those things seemed all the difficult once you figured it out. None of these things seem particularly useful until one day, when it was suddenly crucial. Given the number of doctors, engineers and developers we need, we should be encouraging kids to embrace the difficulty of math like any other subject instead of perpetuating the fear.

P.S. I still suck at math but my Asia-raised parents say that I’m not so bad – I just never gave it a chance.

Here’s more proof that we’re afraid of math via Internet memes (and even more of them on my Pinterest board):

Photo credits: pics.livejournal.comiwastesomuchtime.comimgfave.com & lolsotrue.com