So, here is the deal: Bank of England are still taking nominations from the public for the new £50 bank note to be graced with a British scientist. As soon as this news surfaced, two things were clear as day to me: my nomination would certainly be a woman; and my nomination would absolutely be Ada Lovelace! Please allow me to share with you why, in my opinion, Lady Lovelace is the undeniable British figurehead for women in STEM, thus her featuring on the new banknote to be a trivial and obvious result.
In no way is this blog post an attempt to diminish the legacy of any of the other male scientific competitors for this position (Hawking, Turing, etc), for their individual contributions to science have vastly enriched its various subfields. But the pressing matter of historical gender bias still present in today’s society begs the question: how many women have actually featured on the Bank of England notes? Elizabeth Fry, Jane Austen and Elizabeth II. Three. Against… how many men? Six. This ratio is out of whack. Here presents itself an opportunity to amend the proportion of females to males on the notes to something a little less skewed. I will say it again: it simply needs to be a female figure!
Although the archeic view of women as the less scientifically-able sex is less prevalent today than it was even twenty years ago, its echo continues to reverberate round the corridors of scientific departments. But this is a whole other topic which, one day, I will inevitably write a short (read: long) essay about, once I finish reading Angela Saini’s ‘Inferior‘. Today is not that day! Today is the day I want to highlight the genius, perseverance and wit of Lady Ada Lovelace. Dorothy Crowfoot-Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin are two scientists equally deserving of the spot of course, but it is Ada who wins my vote.
Perhaps you have never heard of her. Perhaps you have. Ada Lovelace was the first person to publish what was essentially a computer program. In 1842, owing to her fluency in French, Ada was asked to translate into English lecture notes outlining the workings of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine: a machine that would mechanically perform complex computation with punch cards, and had the potential to be a general computing device. This was ground-breaking.
I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Number, in one of my Notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first.
However, young Ada realised the Analytical Engine’s grander potential more than anyone else. She was given Babbage’s permission to add her own notes to the translation, resulting in a whole new text of tripled length and vaster insight. In one of these notes, memorably titled Note G, Ada explains how such a machine can be fed a set of algebraeic instructions in the form of simple mathematical formulae to reproduce a complex series of numbers, such as the Bernoulli number series. In other words, this machine could be programmed in such a way that, given some basic mathematical operators, it would return (correct) numbers which were not in the set of prior inputs. And because Ada recognised the simplicity of the mathematics underpinning the world around her, the concept of using functions to represent something else was extrapolated to ideas beyond numbers alone. She writes:
“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.“
Today, we take the translation of input to output for granted, even in the most basic two-line scripts of any computer language. But in 1843, this was revolutionary. A woman – a feeble woman! – had understood and explained the concept of coding up instructions in the form of mathematical formulae for the Analytical Engine. With all the 19th century ‘if and else’ statement equivalents included.
But her general badassness permeated even further. Ada attempted to utilise the power of probability in horse-race gambling, with the hope to fund the building of this machine. Although she was generally unsuccessful on this front, it is clear that what Ada lacked in luck, she made up in determination.
Lovelace and Babbage’s work was central to the development of Alan Turing’s ideas while working on the Enigma: the machine that would decode German messages at Bletchley Park during WW2, exactly a century later. It was around this time that the modern computing age began, but it would not exist without the analogue computational theory of the Analytical Machine. And I desperately want to emphasise Ada Lovelace’s role in it: she was Wonder Woman in an age of 19th century male dominance in all fields of science. Respecting and highlighting Ada’s scientific intellect through nominating her to be on the £50 bank note seems to me the obvious course of action as a woman in STEM today. Thanks Ada!
Note 1: 9th October is Ada Lovelace day!
Nominate your fave scientist here until the 14th December 2018: