Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers, Poetical science

Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers, Poetical Science

Ada Lovelace is a fitting person to honor in this digital age during woman’s history month. Ada Lovelace was the poet Byron’s daughter who wrote in 1843 a description of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the conceptual foundation of the modern computer.

My first reaction to this aspect of computer history was when I visited the Science Museum in London in 1976. I asked myself: “What is a portrait of a beautiful woman, a poet’s daughter, doing next to this model of the Analytical Engine?” It was strange to see a woman achieving, as it still is, in the predominately male world of computer science and engineering. However after doing much research, and writing books and articles about Ada, the far more important questions became how could she predict accurately the impact of a technology that had not even been built, as well as write a table of instructions of how to calculate a complex algorithm.

What makes this story of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage so fascinating is that it is a human story. It highlights human skills that integrate and connect science and imagination. Ada called it “poetical science”, today we might call it connecting the dots, determining what does fit and what does not fit. Looking at the first posts on “Finding Ada” I am so impressed with how many creative blogs there are doing just that from short video clips, to comics to t-shirts.

Ada’s first introduction to Babbage’s concept was on her 19th birthday, December 15, 1834, when she went to Babbage’s home. Ada was familiar with Babbage’s first calculating engine, the Difference Engine, but this night he revealed a new idea. In his biography Passages he described how in October 1834 he had the idea that he could not only teach a machine to foresee but to “act on that foresight.” Though Ada had been brought up to be a mathematician, not a poet like her father, mathematics now became a joy and not a duty.

Babbage’s imaginative description of this concept inspired her. From 1834 Babbage became obsessed with the designs for the Analytical Engine. Ada married, had children and kept in close contact with him, never forgetting his dream. She suggested in 1841 that perhaps she could help him. She went back to the study of mathematics by mail, with Augustus DeMorgan. Since both Babbage and Ada loved games she worked out a plan of how a machine might play a game called solitaire. She started methodically by numbering the pegs. She wondered if you could instruct a machine to work out a strategy to win. She ended the letter by stating “I am by nature a bit of a philosopher “ and though she looked through “an immeasurable vista” she did see a “very bright light” in the distance.

After much hard work Babbage was invited to Turin, Italy to describe his Analytical Engine. In October 1842 Babbage’s presentations at the meeting in Turin were published in French in a Swiss journal. One of the participants, an Italian soldier-engineer named L. F. Menabrea, wrote an article that summarized the technical aspects of the Analytical Engine. Ada read the article and translated it into English. Babbage suggested she should add Notes to the article.

Ada's Notes are remarkable because of her conceptual understanding of the Analytical Engine and her ability to express that understanding by using apt metaphors and visual examples. She suggested that if the fundamental relations of pitched sound could be expressed mathematically that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity. “

She wanted the reader to view this development visually: “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves. “

She suggested a table of how the machine might calculate a complex function, Bernoulli numbers, numbering the lines and introducing the concept of a cycle, the machine reusing information.

Her most controversial statement that still engenders hot controversy was: ”The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate any thing it only can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”

Babbage and Ada had a disagreement about the publication. He inserted a preface detailing how badly the British government treated him. Ada was furious and wrote him a 14-page letter underscoring her bottom line. The development of the Analytical Engine was not for fame, greed, or glory but for the “benefit of mankind”.

After an emotional interchange Ada and Babbage made up. She invited him to her home at Ashley Combe and he replied that he would “forget this world and all its troubles…everything in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”

Betty Alexandra Toole Ed.D.