28 October, 2015 - 11:06 By Tony Quested

Building on the legacy of Byron’s daughter

Byron once wrote: “Opinions are made to be changed – or how is truth to be got at?”

The poet’s only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, has been the inspiration for changing a good many opinions since her early death 163 years ago and remains a revered scientific figurehead.

The Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich recently held its annual Ada Lovelace Day to raise awareness of the integral role women have played in scientific discovery.

It was a celebration of women in STEM subjects that takes place every year. Ada Lovelace was a talented mathematician, who famously worked with Charles Babbage on the ‘Analytical Engine’ – one of the first conceptions of a functioning computer.

TGAC adopted the initiative as the centre works in such close harmony with computers and bioinformatics; Ada Lovelace Day celebrates how far the science research institute has come, especially with TGAC's representation of women across departments.

The campaign has highlighted some of the leading names in science that may have evaded us, and to encourage more women in STEM subjects, particularly bioinformatics, which is an incredibly male-dominated field.

In the run-up to Ada Lovelace Day, TGAC asked colleagues on Norwich Research Park to share the female scientists who had inspired them and how.

Peter Bickerton at TGAC summed up the initiative rather nicely: “This was a great opportunity to showcase our support for the advancement of opportunities for women in STEM careers, engaging in a positive movement for change to help eradicate the barriers preventing female participation in science.

“We have a strong representation of women at TGAC and this is something to be celebrated. With this, and more days akin to our 'Women in Bioinformatics Day' in February, we hope to encourage more female scientists to TGAC.”

As US chief technology officer Megan Smith writes on Wiki, Ada Lovelace was a worthy role model – for men or women – in science. She was only 37 when she died but packed a lot into her brief but dynamic career.

Her notes on the analytical engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer.

Lovelace was born on December 10, 1815 as Byron’s only legitimate child; all Byron's other children were born out of wedlock to other women.

Byron separated from his wife a month after Ada was born and left England for good four months later, eventually dying of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was eight years old.

As a young adult, Ada’s mathematical talents led her to an ongoing working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, and in particular Babbage's work on the analytical engine.

Between 1842 and 1843, she translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on the engine, which she supplemented with an elaborate set of notes of her own, simply called Notes.

These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program –that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Lovelace's notes are important in the early history of computers.

She also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.

Given the context in which Ada Lovelace worked – a backdrop of poor global communications capability and no internet to leverage for information or collaboration – her influence and contribution were staggering.

One should add that the prevailing culture in Victorian Britain was one of female subjugation to home and husband. Ada Lovelace contributed mightily against the odds. These odds have lessened over time and women now have opinion, society, government and education on their side.

Not everyone can have Lovelace’s intellect; but if they have her single-minded determination to succeed then the climate and culture have never been more propitious.

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