The Importance of 'Hidden Figures'

Duke physicist Ayana Arce on the barriers broken by NASA's African-American women mathematicians

Ayana Arce discusses the value of the Oscar-nominated movie. Video by Julie Schoonmaker.

Duke physicist Ayana Arce hopes movies like Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” bring more students from all sorts of backgrounds into science and math classrooms.

“The success of a movie like ‘Hidden Figures’ is really encouraging because this is actually a story of some mathematicians, and for Hollywood this hasn’t usually been a subject where people thought they could find stories of great heroism,” said Arce, who is searching for fundamental particles of matter at the world’s largest physics experiment, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.  

“When math and science and especially women and minorities playing roles in math and science are projected on the big screen, it helps to change the way that people think about who can have these kinds of careers.”

“One thing that really strikes me in the context of the film ‘Hidden Figures’ is that between the time that was portrayed in the movie and now, so many of the institutional barriers to women and minorities participating fully in these kinds of scientific enterprises, those barriers have been broken down,” Arce said. “And although there is still a ways to go in terms of making a completely inclusive and diverse environment for people working in these fields, the fact that we can all contribute together in these kinds of enterprises is really important.”

She added, “I think inclusivity is very important in physics because when we have a large group of people who get together to solve hard problems, then we want to be sure that the best and most curious and excited people are all able to work on those problems and they all feel comfortable working in that team. So the environment has to be supportive of everybody and has to make everyone feel like they can really contribute.”