This Tuesday the internet was widely celebrating Ada Lovelace Day, an occasion often used to point out the achievements of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Today I’m going to be my contrary self and discuss a problem I have with how we portray Ada Lovelace Day.
Firstly, I’ll recap Ada’s background for context, though I’d also recommend reading either of these articles about her for more information.
Augusta Ada Gordon (later Countess of Lovelace) was the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Baroness Anne Milbanke. Lord Byron was well-known for his temperament, adventures and affairs, and was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. (Some scholars believe that Byron likely lived with bipolar disorder). He left his family when Ada was four months old, then died when she was eight years old.
Anne Milbanke was highly educated, having grown up tutored in philosophy, maths, and science. Hurt by Byron’s abandonment, she remained distant from Ada, who was instead looked after by her grandmother. Anne continually feared Ada would develop the same “insanity” as Byron, and so pushed Ada into studying maths and science in the belief that it would protect Ada from that “insanity”.
Ada idolised Bryon despite (or perhaps because of) never meeting him. She remained interested in him, and in literature and poetry. Ada spent many of her teenage years dealing with chronic illness which left her housebound at least once. She was educated by tutors, and through correspondence with elite academics, both available thanks to Anne’s social class and connections.
Anne’s attempts to mould Ada into the opposite of Byron were luckily unsuccessful. Rather than learning about only science and maths, Ada studied everything from poetry to maths to flying machines. She grew up with both poets and scientists, and called herself a “poetic analyst”.
The Analytical Engine
When Ada was 17, Anne took her to meet Charles Babbage, who was in the process of building his Difference Engine. Ada’s interest in the Difference Engine kickstarted a long-term friendship and correspondence. As a result, when Babbage moved on to developing the perpetually-unfinished Analytical Engine, which was intended to use a more complex system involving punched cards, Ada was closely involved. The only existing transcriptions of Babbage’s ideas were in French, so Ada, who spoke fluent French, translated these notes for publication. With Babbage’s support, Ada also added her own extensive knowledge about the machine, which resulted in the “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”.
The Sketch contained Babbage’s intricate descriptions of the machine’s construction and mechanics. It also featured Ada’s visions of what the machine could do in fields beyond mathematics. She grasped that anything which could be expressed as numbers could then be calculated and manipulated in the same way as numbers, and proposed that future machines may be able to compose music, decode language, or process images. She also included the first algorithm – an instruction about how to calculate a set of numbers known as Bernoulli numbers – which can be seen as the first example of computer programming.
The Science of Operations
Arguably, Ada’s notes not only developed an algorithm but also the idea of studying computing itself. This stance comes from Ada’s description of the Analytical Engine – “an embodying of the science of operations”. The science of operations describes the study of computing itself, and her description clearly indicates her belief that it is a separate area of study.
“But the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value; just as logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes.”
So why did Ada, rather than Babbage or anyone else, make this conceptual leap?
To me, the answer lies in her educational background, and also in the union she developed between her imagination and intellect. I believe that Ada’s education in a wide range of subjects, and her love of multiple fields, let her synthesise ideas which more singularly focused engineers and mathematicians missed. If Ada had been brought up focusing only on STEM, as her mother wished, then I doubt she would have made the connections she did.
It’s hard to pin someone’s success on just one cause. Of course Ada’s intellect, personal ability, and determination is a major contributor to her success. But so is her personal history, such as her chronic illnesses and her attachment to the idea of Byron. Then there are the factors which Ada had no control over: the social connections afforded by Ada’s upbringing; Anne’s insistence that Ada studied maths, science and French; Anne’s distant treatment of Ada; and even Byron’s abandonment itself. (Biographers of Ada suggest that she may have also experienced bipolar disorder, further connecting her history to Byron’s history).
All of these pieces – good, bad or cruel – are part of the process that led Ada to develop the knowledge and therefore the vision she had.
Returning to Ada Lovelace Day: although the day is often discussed as a celebration of women in STEM, I’d argue that making it solely about STEM is selling Ada’s achievements short.
Celebrating Ada Lovelace as a woman in STEM is missing two valuable ideas which could be used in science communication. Firstly, Ada was arguably a science communicator as well as a scientist. In the Sketch, she was both a translator and an expositor of Babbage’s ideas; she provided greater context and clarity about what his ideas signified, and so was instrumental to those ideas being published and known about. I’d like to see more focus on this part of her work, and to see her representing sci-comm as well as science.
More importantly, talking about Ada only as a “woman in STEM” can imply that she is a “woman of STEM”- in other words, that her achievements belong only to STEM. By doing that, we hide that her vision and her success probably came from the union of humanities and STEM which ran through her childhood and adulthood. Ada Lovelace shouldn’t just be known as a female scientist, but also as an an example of why STEM, humanities, and arts need to be connected and not divided by default. She should be an example of why forcing people to “pick sides” can get in the way of discovery by blocking potential syntheses of ideas.