Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ada Lovelace

It's Ada Lovelace day! Or rather, it was yesterday, but I was stuck on a mandatory (and pointless) course so couldn't write anything about it. It was sunny outside, too.

Anyway, Ada Lovelace was a daughter of Lord Byron who is credited with writing the world's first computer program: she designed an algorithm to enable Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It's unfortunate that Babbage was unable to ever build the machine, but he was obviously very impressed with Lovelace, who he called The Enchantress of Numbers. And rightly so: she was a skilled mathematician and had enviable foresight about the future of computing. The (now pretty much defunct) programming language Ada was named after her.

While she is generally considered to be the originator of the computer program, I think her achievement goes much further than that. She invented the abstraction as software engineers think of it: in her case a systematic way of thinking that distinguishes what a computer is from what it does. The importance of abstraction in computing cannot be overstated. The reason computers can do such amazing things is that we know how to handle their complexity. This is done by heaping abstractions on top of each other, so we don't have to deal with the complexity of the levels below. Operating systems, drivers, programming languages, middleware, network protocols, meta languages, business logic, ontologies, business interaction protocols....

While computer programs are still the way we make computers do things to this day, it's for the concept of abstraction and how they make computer science possible, powerful and above all intersting that I celebrate the life of Augustus Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace day is also about celebrating geek chick heroes. I have several.

Anyone who knows me will know I have always been in awe of Marie Curie. Not only the first woman to win a Nobel prize, but the first person of either sex to win two.

Rosalind Franklin
, whose work was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, but who (outrageously) didn't share the prize.

Fran Allen, who was the first woman to receive the Turing Award, which is sorta kinda like the Turing of computer science. She also (topically) won the Ada Lovelace award in 2002.

The women of Bletchley Park. Read about their genius and importance here.

But while I'm on the subject, I can't limit myself to geek heroes. I'm also going to cite:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I'm not going to say anything about her here because I want you to read about her.

Ophelia Benson, brilliant and awesomely beligerant philosopher.

Rebecca Watson, Skepchic founder and the queen of irreverance.

Please understand that I don't use the word 'hero' lightly. Most people I know either bandy the word around meaninglessly or claim they have no heroes. I don't understand people of the latter sort.

I consider heroes as people who I admire and who surprise me. People who do things I probably can't....but might possibly be able to. People who overcome odds that I can barely understand.... People who keep out-thinking me. Yeah, these people are my heroes.

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