Charles Petzold

Reading “Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist”

January 24, 2019
Sayreville, New Jersey

A recent TV commercial for a pizza delivery chain shows a father electronically summoning his family to dinner when the pizza arrives. The kids drop what they’re doing and rush home. The man’s wife is teaching a college chemistry class when she gets the notification. She quickly gathers up her belongings and hurries out of the classroom, telling the class “You're never gonna use this anyway.”

I know it’s just a stupid scripted line in a stupid pizza commercial, but I find comments like that very disturbing, particularly these days when we no longer have a President who is also a science geek (to say the least). It is true that at least some of the students in any class will never use the course material in their professional, social, or recreational lives. But for others, it’s essential.

High school mathematics courses are subjected to the greatest abuse. The common sentiment is that there is no application in the real world for geometry, trigonometry, or even algebra. That’s not true, of course, but very few people in high school know what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives, so it’s necessary to teach these subjects to everyone. I happened to get involved in computer programming with an interest in computer graphics, so I used trigonometry all the time, and I’m glad I was introduced to it at an early age.

A front-page story in today's New York Times reveales a “surge in student demand for computer science courses … far outstripping the supply of professors.” This suggests a need for even more early math courses. Different types of computer programmers use different types and different levels of math, but the ability to think in a very analytical way — to break down a problem into pieces and work out interlocking solutions — is essential to any engineering discipline, as well as computer science.

As the ancient advice to students goes, “The world runs on mathematics and bullshit, and you better be good at one of them.”

The woman who is credited with writing the first set of instructions for an automated calculating engine — a task later known as “computer programming” — accomplished this feat through an extensive and rigorous education in mathematics. This is the focus of a new book about Ada Lovelace, Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist (Bodleian Library, 2018).

I almost didn’t buy this book. It’s only 114 pages including the footnotes and index, and costs $35. The presence of three authors is almost a guarantee of uninspired prose, and I bristled at the anachronism in the title.

But it won me over. The book reproduces letters from the Lovelace-Byron archive at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, which are wonderful to look at and read. These are featured alongside many other color illustrations, most of which I’d never seen before. These make for a unique and exceptionally attractive book. I’ve long been a fan of Augustus De Morgan (Lady Lovelace’s primary math tutor) but I never saw the drawing of him in front of a classroom done by one of his students. (pg. 48) Now that’s a professor who would never say “You're never gonna use this.”

A more accurate subtitle of the book would have been The Making of a Mathematician or The Education of a Mathematician. As soon as I realized that was the focus of the book, I wanted more and more. We see Lady Lovelace not only picking up more mathematics, but also discovering the processes that allow her to learn in more productive ways. In one letter she writes:

I used to regret these sorts of error & to speak of time lost over them. But I have materially altered my mind on this subject. I often gain more from the discovery of a mistake of this sort, than from 10 acquisitions made at once & without any kind of difficulty. (pg. 59)

This progress becomes truly inspiring and moving because we see how Lady Lovelace’s mathematics education proceeds to the point where she can translate an Italian article about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and add additional content to it, including a chart widely credited as the first computer program.

This is not the book to read about Lady Lovelace’s addiction to gambling and drugs. There are other longer and more lurid sources for that. This book covers what is historically the more important story.