Today is, according to Suw at least, Ada Lovelace day. As I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron who is often acknowledged as the first to write down a computer program. I’m not sure why today is her day, but it’s being used by hundreds of people as an excuse to blog about a female contributor to ‘technology’.
Never one to miss out on an opportunity to write, I was going to pontificate on the role the Harvard (and Greenwich) computers played in early 20th century astronomy, and how Galaxy Zoo relates to their legacy. But Andrew’s beaten me to the first part.
Instead, let me talk about two women who contributed not as practitioners themselves, but as popularizers and interpreters of cutting-edge science. The first is the namesake of my Oxford college, Mary Somerville. Somerville grew up in a relatively well connected family, and was encouraged in her talent for studying mathematics and science; she was quickly in correspondence with many of the learned men of the day. That led to the chance to make her own name in translating foreign texts.
In fact, her ambition reached wider than that. Her first major commission was to translate Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. When the result was published under the title The Mechanism of the Heavens she had not only translated into English, but as she put it from ‘algebra into common language’. By doing so with grace and flair she brought the importance of the work to a much wider audience than it would have otherwise had – to give you an idea, the use of the word ‘variable’ in a mathematical context is her coinage.
The book also set the stage for her great surveys of 19th century science, including On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, a copy of which sits well-thumbed on my bookcase at home. To write a survey of a fast moving field is no easy thing, which brings me to my second heroine.
Agnes Clarke was an Irish astronomer in a similar position to Somerville, but about 70 years later. Although Somerville had, along with Caroline Herschel, been admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society it was still rare for women to be admitted, a major factor behind the founding of the British Astronomical Association. One of the BAA’s early leading lights, Clarke was also a prolific author whose greatest work was a history of nineteenth century astronomy. Published in the first decade of the twentieth century, the book takes a quick look back at progress made, before running through our current state of knowledge on everything from Mars (canals likely a mistake) to galaxies beyond the Milky Way (‘a long forgotten and discredited hypothesis’).
I know of no book in the field anything like it, and if I had several years spare I’d spend it writing the 20th century equivalent. It shares with Somerville’s writing a sense of being right at the forefront of knowledge in the company of authors who know the field which they are surveying intimately. The two are remembered differently; Clarke barely existing beyond second-hand bookshops, Somerville remembered with a crater on the Moon and, of course, the college named in her honour. Both, though, were clearly capable of contributing to science. If they were transported to 2009 would they have been researchers? Perhaps. But I bet they’d both be blogging, too.
Happy Ada Lovelace Day.