An Enchantress of Numbers: Why it’s necessary to remember Ada Lovelace 150 years after her death.


Ada Lovelace died 27th November 1852. She is not a living heroine, nor indeed does she have anything to do with October 7th. However, October 7th 2011 was Ada Lovelace Day, a day when women’s achievements in Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths (STEM) are acknowledged and blogged about all over the web.

 

Enchantress of Numbers

Lovelace in 1840ish

Suw Charman-Anderson, the founder of Ada Lovelace Day and its website, FindingAda.com, was sick of hearing excuses from conference organisers as to why there were so few female speakers on the bill. She was also a co-founder of Open Rights Group and was Executive Director of the group in its infancy. Open Rights Group advocates for digital rights and civil liberties such as net neutrality. She has now shifted focus. Inspired by Lockwood’s research, finding inspirational female role models in STEM is Charman-Anderson’s new aim.

Why should she choose such an aim? Penelope Lockwood is a psychologist who discovered the importance of role models in driving achievement among young people, women in particular. Unlike young men, who have countless examples of success to aspire to, women have fewer examples to choose from in any field. “Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success,” says Lockwood. “They demonstrate that it is possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”

Ada Lovelace is a supreme example. The first computer programmer, she worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine and was visionary in her approach. Babbage himself called her “An Enchantress of Numbers” and she produced what is largely recognised as the first computer algorithm. Ada Lovelace Day aims to ensure that young women in need of role models are not ignorant of achievements such as hers.

However Ada Lovelace is not the only female pioneer in STEM. Indeed her story is not uncommon. Brilliant female collaborators are often left out of the history of monumental human achievement.

Lise Meitner was a quarter-jewish Austrian physicist and co-discoverer of nuclear fission. Otto Hahnwas her collaborator and the man who was consequently awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery. Meitner’s intimate involvement with the research and interpretation of the data were overlooked, know as the“nobel mistake”, as her involvement was crucial. Meitner interpreted data Hahn could not understand and was directly involved in planning experiments. The reason for her omission? Germany had recently annexed Austria. As someone of Jewish heritage working in Germany, she was forced to flee to the Netherlands.

The hat keeps the genius in.

Meitner in 1906

Another woman who worked in Germany, Emmy Noether, was not permitted to take university mathematics courses as a student, completing them by attending for no credit instead. When she finally earned her PhD she was allowed to work only as an unpaid lecturer under male colleagues’ names. She was criticized in her lifetime for her lack of attention to her appearance, often spilling food down herself during enthusiastic discussions at dinner or failing to fix her hair when it fell down during long lectures, even being approached by concerned students in this instance. Despite having revolutionised aspects of algebra and successfully worked on gaps in relativity her messy hair and stained dress were apparently as noteworthy as her astounding works in theoretical physics.

Noether in the early 1900s

Lockwood’s research and the foundation of Ada Lovelace Day by Charman-Anderson highlight not only that there is a dearth of women for other women to emulate, but the women who have had extraordinary careers in STEM are not properly celebrated.

According to Lockwood, the stereotypes regarding women’s competence in the workplace mean “they may derive particular benefit from the example of an outstanding woman who illustrates the possibility of overcoming gender barriers to achieve success.” One of Lockwood’s studies involved asking students to name a role model in their career ambitions. Sixty three per cent of females and seventy five per cent of male students chose men. However, while male students said gender had no effect whatsoever on their decision, twenty seven per cent of females said that the obstacles their role models had overcome regarding their gender had played a part in their inspiration.

Ada Lovelace Day is entirely necessary. If these women were properly celebrated, if they had the status and renown of their male colleagues (of whom I have heard), I would not have had to google them.

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