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A pioneering mathematical female – @BodPublishing

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Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist
by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice

First things first: I should state straight away that mathematics and I do *not* get on well. Which is a little odd, because part of my work involves being a finance officer! However, I can do this as I have lots of lovely computer programs to do the difficult work for me; so it’s not surprising, therefore, that I’m grateful to, and keen to learn about, people like Ada Lovelace who were in at the beginning of such things. Coincidentally, I watched an interesting BBC4 documentary re-run recently about Lovelace’s work; so I was very excited to see that the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library was bringing out this book and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

“The Making of a Computer Scientist” is a beautiful, lavishly illustrated hardback which looks not only at Lovelace’s life but also her mathematical achievements. There is a certain amount of controversy about her status in the scientific world; claims are often made that she produced the first computer program, whereas counter-claims describe her work as simply being a condensation of other works. Certainly, she published no books of research or great scientific discoveries – but that’s because of the world in which she grew up and the way that women were educated at the time.

Ada was born Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord and his wife Annabella Milbanke; her father left when she was one month old and she had minimal contact with him. Her upbringing and education fell to her mother, who was determined to keep the girl’s mind on logical, mathematical subjects so as to counteract any tendency to madness (not for nothing had Lord Byron been known as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”). However, as this book makes clear, women’s education at the time was not straightforward; Ada was reliant on a number of personal tutors, including Mary Somerville (one of the first members of the Royal Astronomical Society) and the mathematician Augustus De Morgan. But her most significant intellectual relationship was with Charles Babbage, inventor of the ‘Analytical Engine’, considered the first computer. Their relationship lasted until Ada’s early death, and the latter had significant input into Babbage’s work on his engine.

Lovelace’s most visible contribution was left in her translation from Italian of a paper by Luigi Menabrea, who had taken notes of talks given by Babbage in Turin; the latter asked Ada to add something of her own, and her appendices were longer than the actual paper itself… Within her notes to the work, she included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (don’t ask…) and it’s this which has led to her being considered the first computer programmer and her method as the world’s first computer program. Frankly, I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a judgement on that, but it’s fascinating.

The text of this book is in itself interesting enough, giving a concise outline of Lovelace’s life and work; however, where it really comes into its own is the wealth of visual material it presents, not only about Lovelace herself but also giving context to her life and times. The book is packed with reproductions of unpublished letters, notes and images from the Bodleian archives; paintings of Lovelace and her associates; pictures of contemporary events and also happenings that informed Lovelace’s life. It really is a lovely and informative book!

It’s always important to remember how many things were stacked up against Ada Lovelace, and her wish to learn, analyse and discover. As the authors point out:

Success for a woman in science in nineteenth-century Britain required a combination of many fortunate circumstances: access to education and books; talent and ambition, recognized and nurtured by herself and others; good health; support from husband and parents; and wealth and social standing. Women were unable to attend university, or to join scientific societies or to access scholarly libraries. A woman needed a competent governess and tutors, and then, as her interests matured, mentors to give her access to scientific meetings and papers, and to work with her as intellectual equals, offering criticism as well as flattery. She needed to reconcile her talent and ambition with widespread concerns, among women and men, that mathematics was not an appropriate or decorous activity for women, that women were incapable of serious mathematical work or that they were not strong enough to undertake it.

Against this background, Lovelace’s achievements are all the more impressive and inspirational; although the class element has to be taken into account, as Ada had a husband and three children. If she hadn’t been rich, she wouldn’t have had the luxury of following her intellectual pursuits, having instead to give all her energies to her family.

However, it’s satisfying to note how highly she was regarded by the men she worked amongst. They appreciated her keen intelligence, perhaps acknowledging that as Ada had not been trained like a man in traditional ways of thinking she was therefore better placed to make instinctive leaps of reasoning. Her rigorous mind was often able to spot errors in the work of others (in particular an error of Babbage’s which she spotted and corrected) and it seems her contemporaries recognised a tendency in her to take the land of mathematics in new directions: “the way to enlarge the settled country has not been by keeping within it, but by making voyages of discovery”.

Time and time again, the authors highlight something Ada proposed and discovered, pointing out that she was right and ahead of her time. I confess that as the book progressed and Ada’s mathematical knowledge grew, I lost track of the various formulae explained (they were never my strong point…). Nevertheless, I can appreciate her remarkable achievements, stand in awe of how ahead of her time she was and lament the fact she died so young. If, like me, your maths is extremely basic (ahem), I wouldn’t shy away from approaching this book; it’s a beautiful and very readable account of a pioneering woman who made a notable contribution to science – highly recommended!

(Book kindly provided by the publishers via Emma O’Bryen – for which many thanks!)

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Manuscripts *do* burn…

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In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

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