Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lovelace & Byron

Ada Lovelace is honoured with a doodle.


I went to see the 2014 MONA FOMA. A action-packed, fun-filled week of music, art and shenanigans. Like all public events, and many privates ones, foma brought forth some of our modern contradictions. And the source of this article being an apparent (let us be polite and say an inadvertent) sexism.

The recent festival included a performance of the Ada Project. The Ada of this project is Ada Lovelace, a Victorian era mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage to design a mechanical general-purpose computer, called the Analytical Engine. As Ada Lovelace died in 1852 this was an amazing intellectual achievement, even if was never realised.

Sadly there is a preoccupation with her famous father, Lord Byron. A father who was disappointed to sire a daughter, and who left Ada and her mother only one month after the child was born. Rushing off to fight for Greek independence, he like so many others soldiers over the generations, died of fever in camp. He never saw the enemy, let alone fire in anger. It is all rather pathetic, and more than a trifle appropriate.

But let us see some examples of this phenomenon:
It’s the first time I’ve seen an industrial robot dance to an opera about Lord Byron’s daughter, who was diagnosed with hysteria as she died of ovarian cancer (The ADA Project)

An industrial robot, inspired by the life and work of Ada Lovelace, gifted mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron. Lovelace predicted computer-generated music 100 years before it eventuated.

The Guardian, if only parenthetically
They are inspired by two things; first the movements of the machine, and secondly the life of Ada Lovelace, a Victorian mathematician (and daughter of Lord Byron) who Shawcross tells us developed a prototype computer called the Difference Engine.

Prepare to be mesmerised by The ADA Project: four musical commissions inspired by the life and work of Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the gifted (yet troubled) mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron

There is no arguing that Ada Lovelace was in fact the child of Lord Byron. And I understand the use of this sort of short hand, allowing the reader to quickly orient themselves. There is no doubt that Lord Byron is a famous name, full of bad boy intrigue and eroticism. All this does work to quickly frame Ada Lovelace, but it does it seem to me, if not wrong, at least not right. As Byron abandoned the mother and child, he could not be called her father; as being a father is more than spreading one's seed. Indeed Byron was no more than a negative, a hole in the life of Ada Lovelace. Her mother, embittered by the rut and forget policy of the famous poet, gave Ada a rigorous education in mathematics and science. This was a vain attempt to keep her away from poetry, and all romantic ideas. Ada's mother felt poetry to be a source of insanity. Ada developed ideas of poetical science, ideas which allowed her to ask the right questions about the role of the Analytical Engine, and the relationship between the machine, the individual, and society.

Although some historians doubt her contributions and abilities Ada Lovelace is remembered as a great mathematician, one of the best of her generation. She devised, and again some reject these claims, the first computer program, an algorithm for calculating Bernoulli numbers. - - More importantly she was able to contemplate the idea of the general purpose computer. The idea of a Turing complete machine that can solve any equation. This seems like little when it is written down, but this idea is what allows us a computer to generate music, film and all teh other content that goes with it. Lady Lovelace, with Charles Babbage, also conceived of the idea of the stored program. A calculator is a computer, but one that can only do one thing, to get it to read email would require much effort, and modification. The modern computer allows me to write this with my typesetting software, while changing windows to view my email, or to further research Ada Lovelace.

If we were to compare Lord Byron to Lady Lovelace in their relative importance to our modern world, there is no comparison. One wrote a few good, and some very good poems that allow us to see the mindset of England after the Napoleonic Wars, one of them worked to develop ideas that are only now coming to fruition.

As an aside, and with perhaps some irony, the US Defense Department created a language called Ada This language was defined as ANSI/MIL-STD 1815A, but note the numbering -- 1815, the year Ada Lovelace was born.

To get some idea of the achievement of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, we can look at the contradiction that surrounds her unpleasant death. Aged 37 she died from ovarian cancer, her doctors had resorted to blood letting, and came up with theories that too much science her made her hysterical, causing this debilitating disease. Being an aristocrat, Lady Lovelace would have had access to the height of modern medical thought. These are some of the contradictions of a world, still in the infancy of industrialisation, where Ada Lovelace is imaging machines that can create music, while contemporary medical science is still resorting to sympathetic magic, and superstition for cures.

The final word I leave to Ada Lovelace, to allow the reader to get a feel for her visionary imagery and work: "The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves."

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