A double bicentennial – George contra Ada – Reality contra Perception

The end of this year sees a double English bicentennial in the history of computing. On 2 November we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of mathematician and logician Georg Boole then on 10 December the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of ‘science writer’ Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. It is an interesting exercise to take a brief look at how these two bicentennials are being perceived in the public sphere.

As I have pointed out in several earlier posts Ada was a member of the minor aristocracy, who, although she never knew her father, had a wealthy well connected mother. She had access to the highest social and intellectual circles of early Victorian London. Despite being mentored and tutored by the best that London had to offer she failed totally in mastering more than elementary mathematics. So, as I have also pointed out more than once, to call her a mathematician is a very poor quality joke. Her only ‘scientific’ contribution was to translate a memoire on Babbage’s Analytical Engine from French into English to which are appended a series of new notes. There is very substantial internal and external evidence that these notes in fact stem from Babbage and not Ada and that she only gave them linguistic form. What we have here is basically a journalistic interview and not a piece of original work. It is a historical fact that she did not write the first computer programme, as is still repeated ad nauseam every time her name is mentioned.

However the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada are banging the advertising drum for her bicentennial on a level comparable to that accorded to Einstein for the centenary of the General Theory of Relativity. On social media ‘Finding Ada’ are obviously planning massive celebrations, which they have already indicated although the exact nature of them has yet to be revealed. More worrying is the publication of the graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (note who gets first billing!) by animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua. The Analytical Engine as of course not the first computer that honour goes to Babbage’s Difference Engine. More important Padua’s novel is not even remotely ‘mostly’ true but largely fictional. This wouldn’t matter that much if said book had not received major media attention. Attention that compounded the error by conveniently forgetting the mostly. The biggest lie in the work of fiction is the claim that Ada was somehow directly involved in the conception and construction of the Analytical engine. In reality she had absolutely nothing to do with either its conception or its construction.

This deliberate misconception has been compounded by a, in social media widely disseminated, attempt to get support for a Lovelace, Babbage Analytical Engine Lego Set. The promoter of this enterprise has written in his blurb:

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is widely credited as the first computer scientist and Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Together they collaborated on Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.

Widely credited by whom? If anybody is the first computer scientist in this set up then it’s Babbage. Others such as Leibniz speculated on what we now call computer science long before Ada was born so I think that is another piece of hype that we can commit to the trashcan. Much more important is the fact that they did not collaborate on the Analytical Engine that was solely Babbage’s baby. This factually false hype is compounded in the following tweet from 21 July, which linked to the Lego promotion:

Historical lego [sic] of Ada Lovelace’s conception of the first programmable computer

To give some perspective to the whole issue it is instructive to ask about what in German is called the ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’, best translated as historical impact, of Babbage’s efforts to promote and build his computers, including the, in the mean time, notorious Menabrea memoire, irrespective as to who actually formulated the added notes. The impact of all of Babbage’s computer endeavours on the history of the computer is almost nothing. I say almost because, due to Turing, the notes did play a minor role in the early phases of the post World War II artificial intelligence debate. However one could get the impression from the efforts of the Ada Lovelace fan club, strongly supported by the media that this was a highly significant contribution to the history of computing that deserves to be massively celebrated on the Lovelace bicentennial.

Let us now turn our attention to subject of our other bicentennial celebration, George Boole. Born into a working class family in Lincoln, Boole had little formal education. However his father was a self-educated man with a thirst for knowledge, who instilled the same characteristics in his son. With some assistance he taught himself Latin and Greek and later French, German and Italian in order to be able to read the advanced continental mathematics. His father went bankrupt when he was 16 and he became breadwinner for the family, taking a post as schoolmaster in a small private school. When he was 19 he set up his own small school. Using the library of the local Mechanics Institute he taught himself mathematics. In the 1840s he began to publish original mathematical research in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal with the support of Duncan Gregory, a great great grandson of Newton’s contemporary James Gregory. Boole went on to become one of the leading British mathematicians of the nineteenth century and despite his total lack of formal qualifications he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded Queen’s College of Cork in 1849.

Although a fascinating figure in the history of mathematics it is Boole the logician, who interests us here. In 1847 Boole published the first version of his logical algebra in the form of a largish pamphlet, Mathematical Analysis of Logic. This was followed in 1854 by an expanded version of his ideas in his An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probability. These publications contain the core of Boolean algebra, the final Boolean algebra was actually produced by Stanley Jevons, only the second non-standard algebra ever to be developed. The first non-standard algebra was Hamilton’s quaternions. For non-mathematical readers standard algebra is the stuff we all learned (and loved!) at school. Boolean algebra was Boole’s greatest contribution to the histories of mathematics, logic and science.

When it first appeared Boole’s logic was large ignored as an irrelevance but as the nineteenth century progressed it was taken up and developed by others, most notably by the German mathematician Ernst Schröder, and provided the tool for much early work in mathematical logic. Around 1930 it was superseded in this area by the mathematical logic of Whitehead’s and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Boole’s algebraic logic seemed destined for the novelty scrap heap of history until a brilliant young American mathematician wrote his master’s thesis.

Claude Shannon (1916–2001) was a postgrad student of electrical engineering of Vannevar Bush at MIT working on Bush’s electro-mechanical computer the differential analyzer. Having learnt Boolean algebra as an undergraduate Shannon realised that it could be used for the systematic and logical design of electrical switching circuits. In 1937 he published a paper drawn from his master’s thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. Shannon switching algebra, applied Boolean algebra, would go on to supply the basis of the hardware design of all modern computers. When people began to write programs for the computers designed with Shannon’s switching algebra it was only natural that they would use Boole’s two-valued (1/0, true/false, on/off) algebra to write those programs. Almost all modern computers are both in their hardware and there software applied Boolean algebra. One can argue, as I have actually done somewhat tongue in cheek in a lecture, that George Boole is the ‘father’ of the modern computer. (Somewhat tongue in cheek, as I don’t actually like the term ‘father of’). The modern computer has of course many fathers and mothers.

In George Boole, as opposed to Babbage and Lovelace, we have a man whose work made a massive real contribution to history of the computer and although both the Universities of Cork and Lincoln are planning major celebration for his bicentennial they have been, up till now largely ignored by the media with the exception of the Irish newspapers who are happy to claim Boole, an Englishman, as one of their own.

The press seems to have decided that a ‘disadvantaged’ (she never was, as opposed to Boole) female ‘scientist’, who just happens to be Byron’s daughter is more newsworthy in the history of the computer than a male mathematician, even if she contributed almost nothing and he contributed very much.

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Filed under History of Computing, History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

A 48-hour mind warp!

It all started some months ago with a decidedly odd email inviting me to take part in something calling itself the SciFoo Camp. My first reaction was this was some sort of hoax and that somewhere in the text I was going to be asked to part with some money or sign up for something weird. None of this happened so before deleting this very strange missive I decided to do some googling. The Internet, including a short Wikipedia article, informed me that the SciFoo camp was indeed something real and consisted of an exclusive, invitation only, unconference held once a year at the Googleplex in Mountain View in California. My second reaction was that they had sent the invitation to the wrong person. Come on, I don’t get invited to exclusive invitation only unconferences, or even conferences, anywhere, let alone in the Googleplex.

Intrigued, but now somewhat disconcerted, I carefully reread the email and discovered that the organisers where offering to pay for my hotel and full catering during the three days of this unconference but not for my travelling expenses. End of story! Some weeks I have difficulty finding the train fare to Nürnberg, a plane ticket to San Francisco is definitely not within my meagre budget. I don’t even possess anything I could pawn or sell to finance such an expenditure.

Having reread this exiting but in the end frustrating invitation several times I formulated a more than somewhat cheeky response. I stated that I had first held the email for a hoax and then, having convinced myself that it probably wasn’t, came to the conclusion that it had been sent to me by mistake, being intended for somebody else with the same or similar name. However in the unlikely circumstance that it really was for me I thanked them for their kind and generous offer but pointed out that I must reluctantly decline, as there was no way I could afford the airfare. I clicked the send button, with a metaphorical tear in my eye, and forgot about the whole thing. The last is not quite true, as one doesn’t usually forget something resembling the offer of a lifetime, but I didn’t dwell too much on the subject.

Imagine my surprise when about a month later I received another email saying, no it wasn’t a hoax and yes we did intend to invite you and under the circumstances we have decided to pay your airfare, if you want to come. Now it truly was the offer of a lifetime. I’m one of those people who grew up on West Coast Rock, City lights Beat Poetry and the writings of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey amongst others and here was somebody offering me a free return plane ticket to the Bay Area with a wacky unconference thrown in gratis. It didn’t take me long to accept. I still needed money to extend my stay in the Bay Area, I didn’t intend to just fly over for the conference, if I was going to fly that far I wanted to experience a little bit of that San Francisco and district magic. A very generous friend offered me an interest free loan against my inheritance (not very large but enough to pay of this loan), a very nineteenth century thing, to enable me to spend a few days in the Bay Area to recover from jet lag before the unconference and a few more playing tourist and visiting friends and acquaintances before I flew back home.

All was set. I flew over on Wednesday 24 June and due to the combined ineptitude of yours truly and the incompetence of both AirBnB and PayPal I arrived in San Francisco without a place to stay. Not a wise move, as I now know to my cost. After a couple of frustrating hours of finding nothing I finally capitulated and booked into a rather shitty motel room for one night for a little under $300 a rather substantial fraction of my shoestring budget. By this point I had been awake for 23 hours and had decided that sleep at any cost was the better part of valour. The following morning saw my plan-B fail dismally. Before leaving Germany I had transferred money to my PayPal account, PayPal having refused to make the necessary room bookings from my bank account. This transfer had taken six instead of the supposed one to two days finally taking place on the morning when I flew out of Germany. This was one of the reasons I still didn’t have a room when I left. I now intended to book a room online using this money. I quickly found several suitable offers on AirBnB and tried to make the booking. PayPal kindly informed that payment could not be made at this time! In Germany I had not been able to sort my problems with PayPal because their hotline had been out of service, now they had shafted me one more time. Fuck you PayPal!

I now turned to plan-C! Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) had suggested I should look in when I’m in the Bay Area. Having first ascertained the address and the nearest BART station I headed on over to Oakland hoping Josh would be able to help me out of my predicament. When I arrived at the NCSE Josh was in a conference but the truly amazing front of house lady Ninah Pixie (that’s her stage name!) gathered me up, waved her magic wand and solved all of my problems. With a friendly smile and apparently no effort Ninah found me an affordable motel room just around the corner from the NCSE, took me to the bank and helped me to get Euro changed into dollars and turned my evolving nightmare back into a dream.

When I first entered the NCSE Ninah had asked me why I was in the Bay Area and I said that I would be attending SciFoo at the weekend and she said, “Oh, Genie’s going too! She’s coming in in a minute so you can meet her”. Genie is Eugenie Scott the legendary founder of the NCSE and leading warrior in the American struggle against the Creationists, Intelligent Designers and other forms of ant-science inanity, for example she is also heavily involved in the battle against the climate change denialists. I mention all of this because Eugenie is the type of person who gets invited to SciFoo. People who are nationally or even internationally famous and leading lights in the respective fields of science, which of course immediately prompts the question, “how the fuck did I ever get invited to this particular bun fight?” of which more later. Whilst I was at the NCSE I had interesting conversations with both Josh Rosenau and Glen Branch.

On Friday I took the Cal Train down to Palo Alto where I was booked into a hotel for SciFoo. My hotel room was bigger than my flat in Germany! Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now I was just a couple of hours away from the SciFoo Camp my first ever unconference. So just what is an unconference, I hear you ask. An unconference is a gathering that has no predetermined theme and no set agenda. The content of the conference is determined by the participants, during the conference itself. I will explain in a little while how that functioned at SciFoo but first of all what is SciFoo. SciFoo is a yearly unconference organised by O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, Nature and Google. The Foo in SciFoo stands for ‘friends of O’Reilly’, O’Reilly being the principal initiator of this particular bun fight.

Around five o’clock I took the shuttle bus from the hotel to Mountain View and the Googleplex curious as to what was awaiting me. The first thing that happened after I arrived in Mountain View and had started tucking into the delicious buffet that had been set up to greet the participants was a soft American voice asking, “Thony is that you?” I looked up and saw Evelyn Lamb, University of Utah mathematician and Scientific American maths blogger. Evelyn and I read each other’s blogs with enthusiasm but we have never met. Unlike myself Evelyn had obviously read the list of participants and knew that I was going to be there. The weekend could not have had a more pleasant beginning. If you like maths and you don’t read Evelyn’s blog, Roots of Unity, you should!

The buffet was followed by the first of a whole series of excellent meals. In terms of food, drinks and snacks Google knows how to take care of its guests. I’m sure I put on several kilos over the three days of SciFoo. We then got introduced to the organisers and to SciFoo. Tim O’Reilly from O’Reilly Media, Timo Hannay from Digital Science, and Cat Allman and Chris DiBona from Google open source plus a lady whose name I have unfortunately forgotten introduced themselves and the SciFoo Camp. The emphasis of the whole introduction was informality and fun. The organisers permit themselves to invite about 250 top scientists from overall in the world to Mountain View for the weekend basically to have fun! Which brings us to the participants. They ranged from Nobel laureates to doctoral students. All of the participants had distinguished themselves in their individual fields and many of them belonged to the category ‘famous author’. I’m not going to name any names because it would be just name-dropping and I had just as fascinating exchanges with the non-well-known, as with the eminent. All of this of course raises the question, how the hell did I ever get an invitation? I remain convinced that it was some sort of administrative fuck up but Timo Hannay assured me that I was supposed to be there. Maybe he was just being nice.

After the introduction by the organisers, we the participants had to introduce ourselves with just three words or three short phrases. There was even a gong in case anybody tried to speak too long. It wasn’t needed. All entered into the spirit of the situation and there were lots of clever and amusing introductions. One lady historian of science (there were three of us all together) from MIT just said, “History Matters!”, which garnered a round of laughter and applause. A famous science writer introduced himself as a high school drop out. Yours truly was fairly boring, “history of science, myth-busting blogger”. An introduction that brought me a series of conversations over the weekend from those curious to know what I mean by myth-busting.

After the introductions the participants posted on a schedule board the topics that they would like to discuss. There were nine conference rooms with eight sessions on the Saturday and three on the Sunday making a grand total of ninety-nine sessions on offer covering a bewildering range of topics in science and science communication. The organisers encourage the participants to leave their comfort zone and attend session outside of their own expertise. Like almost everybody else I followed this advice and as well as attending session close to my own interests I was, for example, in sessions on the peaceful use of drones and on the use of psilocybin to help terminal cancer patients come to terms with their impending deaths. All participants had name tags with their first name written large and their family name written small and we were also encouraged to just approach somebody offer a hand, introduce ourselves and start a conversation. Everybody did just that during all the breaks and all the meals leading to many fascinating exchanges.

The informality encouraged by the organisers led to a delightful phenomenon during the session that mostly took the form of discussions rather than presentations. You had on average about twenty people in a session and without anybody really directing the discussion everybody spoke without anybody interrupting anybody else. All the participants were friendly, courteous, thoughtful, restrained. As somebody emphasised during the closing session there was no hierarchy and absolutely no displays of ego. Given the nature of the participants a truly amazing experience.

So what about content? I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you on that. If I went into details this, already overlong, post would turn into a medium length book. All I will say is that it was one of the most intellectually intense, stimulating and exhilarating forty-eight hours in my life and I thank the Fates, Norns, Gods, forces of Karma or whatever that led to me being invited to this once in a lifetime experience. On Sunday afternoon, after it was all over, Eugenie Scott was kind enough to drive me back to Oakland on the other side of the Bay to the one I had travelled south on so my weekend included a panoramic round trip of a large part of the Bay Area. The Gods were truly being kind to me.

I spent another four days in the Bay Area playing at being a tourist. I did all the cliché things; I walked the full length of the harbour front in San Francisco (eating a Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia along the way), I wandered around Haight-Ashbury and looked at the Grateful Dead house (did I mention that I’m a Dead Head?) with my friend Darrel Rutkin, historian of astrology, who lives on Masonic and whom I first met on a country bus in Middle Franconia, whilst reading Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars. I surveyed Golden Gate Park, at the entrance of which Jim Harrison, star Renaissance Mathematicus commentator, picked me up in his car and took me for an excellent Burmese meal. I met up with Twitter friend Shannon Supple, Berkley University’s Bancroft Library librarian for rare books and special collections, and went for a good Spanish meal in Oakland. I visited the legendary City Lights bookstore were I spent ten minutes debating with myself as to whether I should buy a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (I already own one!) as a memento. In the end the cynic won against the fan and I didn’t! On my last day I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito, later taking the ferry back across the Bay to San Francisco. Here I had a true Bay Area experience because the fog was so thick you could only just see the water from the bridge. All my other days had been clear and sunny!

All of the people I met were kind, generous and friendly and my visit to the Bay Area despite its ominously bad beginning turned out to be totally positive and more than I could have ever hoped for. I own a huge debt to the organisers of the SciFoo Camp for having made all of this possible. I still don’t know why they did but they did and for that I thank them with all my heart.

For those who actually come here to read about the history of science, I already have a couple of things in the pipeline and normal blogging will recommence next week.

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For those who haven’t been paying attention

Galileo Galilei was found guilty and sentenced by the Inquisition on 22 June 1633; as usual this anniversary has produced a flurry of activity on the Internet much of it unfortunately ill informed. This is just a very brief note for all those who haven’t being paying attention.

The crime of which Galileo was found guilty was “vehement suspicion of heresy” and not heresy. This might appear to some to be splitting hairs but within the theological jurisdiction of the Catholic Church the difference is a highly significant one. Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically. As they only found him guilty of the lesser charge “vehement suspicion of heresy” it was possible for him to be sentenced to life in prison commuted the next day to house arrest.

And please Richard Coles, and anybody else stupid enough to quote it, the claim that he said Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) upon being sentenced is almost certainty a myth.

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The Renaissance Mathematicus Road Show 2015

 

At an ungodly hour next Wednesday morning I shall climb into the belly of the big metal bird and fly across the ocean of Athlant to the land of dreams, sunshine and water shortages, California. Why I’m leaving the seclusion and safety of my monk’s cell in Middle Franconia to visit the Bay Area will first be revealed in full upon my return. That is not the purpose of this post.

I shall be very busy over the weekend from 26 to 28 June, and no I don’t have tickets for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (sadly), but having taken a 9000 km and 9 hour flight upon myself I thought I’d hang around for a few days in the San Francisco area. If any of the readers of this blog, (are there any readers of this blog?) would like to meet up for a chat, drink (no alcohol), meal, walk or whatever I shall be freely available for such activities from Monday 29 June to Thursday 2 July and would be pleased to meet you, whoever you are. I love meeting my blog and Twitter friends in the flesh and all such meetings over the last six years or so have been both pleasant and stimulating.

If you are in the Bay Area that week and would like to meet up just drop me a line per email, in the comments or on Twitter and we can work something out. I have no fixed commitments over those four days so I’m very flexible.

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Three strikes and you’re out!

Recently on Twitter I stumbled across the cartoon entitled An Age-Old Argument, reproduced below. It’s not the first time I’ve come across it, as it’s one of those things that does the rounds of the social media sites at regular intervals. This time it was tweeted by Calestous Juma (@calestous) who describes himself as a Harvard Kennedy School Professor working on science & innovation for development. In his tweet he asked for, ‪”Any‪ more examples of such arguments? scientific evidence”. It had been retweeted by @AnneGlover_EU , that is Anne Glover Former Chief Scientific Adviser to Jose Manuel Barroso 2012-2014. These are obviously both people who, when it comes to science, could be expected to know what they are talking about. However it becomes clear that when one analyses the cartoon, which they are boosting that this is not the case.

An age-old argument

As you can see the cartoon has four panels of which the first three supposedly depict episodes from the history of science where ignorant people ignored scientific evidence in the same way as denialists do now in the climate debate. Juma and Glover, like many others, obviously think that the cartoonist has scored three home runs in his historical depictions. However as anyone knowledgeable of the history of science can see what we have here are three hoary old myths of science leading to three strikes and an out. Put differently, people like Juma and Glover should not be spreading ignorant and misleading rubbish as this.

Our first panel has the people in the Middle Ages believing that the earth was flat and refusing to believe that it’s a sphere. This is probably the most widespread and stupid myth in the whole history of science. Since antiquity nobody in Europe qualified to express an opinion on the subject believed that the earth was anything but a sphere. The claim that Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat is a baseless myth created in the nineteenth century. So no homerun, strike one!

To be quite honest the second panel baffles me as it depicts something that never ever took place anywhere at anytime. Gravity is a term used since antiquity to describe the fact that if you let something drop it falls to the ground. Nobody ever challenged this purely descriptive term. In the late seventeenth century Isaac Newton demonstrated that the same force that causes things on earth to fall to the ground also prevents orbiting planets from shooting off at a tangent to their orbits, as the law of inertia would require, thus creating the idea of universal gravity. On the whole those capable of understanding Newton’s mathematical theories accepted them but the Cartesians and the Leibnizians objected to Newton’s inability to explain just what exactly the force of gravity was or should be. Their mechanical philosophical understanding of nature making them suspicious of Newton’s action at a distance. This scientific debate took place in the eighteenth century not the seventeenth and never included any denial of the phenomenon of gravity. So no homerun, strike two!

We now turn to the one panel that some people might consider depicts historical reality. We have a man in the nineteenth century rejecting the theory of evolution on the basis of religion. Images of the infamous Oxford debate, between Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, and Samuel, ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, spring instantly to mind. Unfortunately we have to do with another modern myth. There was no significant religious objection to the theory of evolution during the nineteenth century. I realise here that I’m stepping outside of my historical comfort zone (nineteenth century, life sciences!) and some might challenge my competence to make such a claim. However I offer as substantiation a couple of blog posts by historian and philosopher of biology, and Renaissance Mathematicus friend, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, herehere and here that explain the subject. So no homerun, strike three and out!

I do wish scientist and science communicators who wish to promote scientific thinking against the denialists and their ilk would desist from spreading and propagating rubbishy myths of science, as history of science.

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Now We Are Six.

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three

I was hardly me.

When I was Four,

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,

I’m as clever as clever,

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever[1].

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

The Renaissance Mathematicus emerged in cyberspace on 11 June 2009 with the post Who Am I and Why Am I Here? Since then I have celebrated each anniversary with a special post for the occasion. If you click on the links in the numbers in A. A. Milne’s splendid little poem above, you will be taken to the post for the respective year. As is my wont I see such occasions as a time to reflect upon the blog and what it means to me to write it. Today I want to consider what the most important thing that writing this blog has brought me, apart from teaching me how to write at all, and that is membership of a worldwide history of science community.

When I first became interested in the history of mathematics, as a teenager, finding people with whom I could share my enthusiasm was virtually impossible, a situation that didn’t change appreciably as I grew older. This didn’t stop me from boring friends and acquaintances with, in my opinion, exciting tales of Archimedes, Isaac Newton and George Boole on all possible occasions. Finally in the 1980s, as a mature student in Germany, I became part of a small circle of lecturers, professors and fellow students who shared my interests in and enthusiasm for the histories of mathematics, science, technology and medicine, whilst at the same time serving my apprenticeship as a historian in a research project into the history of mathematical logic. In the 1990s I left the university because of health issue and lost my history of science discussion circle for many years returning to history of science isolation.

In 2002, on the occasion of my professor’s sixty-fifth birthday I returned to university circles and found history of science discussion partners, some old, some new. I also became involved in a history of astronomy group in Nürnberg. I’m still involved with the latter but it is very small and very specialised. My contract group at the university gradually dissolved. People moved away, others retired and again I found myself drifting into isolation.

Things first began to change as I entered the Internet and discovered web sites dealing with various aspects of the history of science and really took off when I began to blog myself. Over the last six years through this blog and my activities managing On Giants’ Shoulders the monthly history of science blog carnival, my presence on Twitter and in the last year as editor of the weekly #histSTM links list Whewell’s Gazette I have become a fully integrated member of a literally world spanning network of historians of science, technology, mathematics, medicine, cartography, alchemy, astrology etc. etc. Professionals and amateurs, professors and lecturers, students, postgrads and postdocs, passionate addicts like myself and people with a casual or even passing interest all are present and all are more than welcome. I can sit at my control centre, my trusty iMac, and whilst I drink my early morning tea communicate with the other members of this wonderful network in India, Australia, North and South America, Africa and all the countries of Europe. Whilst totally isolated in my small flat in Middle Franconia I am more connected to the world of #histSTM than I have ever been, in a way that I could not have begun to imagine thirty years ago.

The Internet #histSTM community is my extended family and I own all of its members more than I can ever repay. I won’t name names otherwise this will become my longest post ever but I will say thank you to each and everyone of you and I hope we will share many more anniversaries here at the Renaissance Mathematicus.

[1] A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, Methuen, 1927

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Creating a holy cow.

Whenever I think that the deification of Ada Lovelace can’t get anymore ridiculous somebody comes along and ups the ante. The latest idiocy was posted on Twitter by the comedian Stephen Fry (of whom I’m a big fan!). Mr Fry tweeted:

Ada Lovelace & Alan Turing for the next £20 note! Nominate here [link removed] Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. [my emphasis]

My comments will only concern Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, although the comment I have highlighted also has issues when applied to Alan Turing.

Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. Let us briefly examine the prejudice that the Countess of Lovelace, née Byron, suffered. Born into the English aristocracy she unfortunately lost her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” father at the tender age of one month. However her mother’s family were extremely wealthy, the main reason Byron who was destitute had married her, and so Ada lacked for nothing throughout her childhood. It should be also pointed out that her mother enjoyed a very high social status, despite her disastrous marriage.

She was, as a young women, tutored and mentored by the elite of the scientific community in Victorian London, including Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Mary Somerville, all of whom helped and encouraged her in her scientific studies. She married the wealthy Baron William King who was soon elevated to Earl of Lovelace and who also supported her scientific endeavours without any restrictions. Somehow I fail to see to what the term prejudice could possibly be referring. Rich, pampered and supported by the very elite of London’s scientific community doesn’t sound like prejudice to me.

It was Wheatstone who suggested that she translate the Menabrea memoire on the Analytical Engine in emulation of her mentor Mary Somerville’s translation of Laplace, a far greater and much more complex work. So there is no suggestion of the pioneer here. Somerville herself was just one of several women, albeit the greatest, who wrote works popularizing the mathematical sciences in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. So Ada was in no way a pioneer but rather following the crowd.

It might be argued that her notations to the memoire qualify her as a pioneer, however I remain firmly convinced that the notes were very much a Babbage-Lovelace co-production with Babbage providing the content and Lovelace the turns of phrase. At best she was a scientific journalist or communicator. The pioneer was Babbage. There is strong evidence to support this interpretation, which gets swept under the carpet by the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada.

I shall be writing a longer post on one central aspect of the cult’s mythologizing later in the summer so stayed tuned.

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