Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate and encourage women in the fields of science and technology. The day is named after Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron. (You can see why we just call her Ada Lovelace.) She was a brilliant mathematician, and the writer of what’s probably the first real computer program — it computed the Bernoulli series. At least according Charles Babbage, in correspondence to Michael Faraday, she was an “enchanted math fairy”. Not only a proto-coder, she wrote almost all of the existing documentation about Babbage’s computation engine. She’s a stellar example of a brilliant and unique individual. If you were looking for a superhero to represent women in science and tech, Ada’s a good pick.
In our minds, she gets stiff competition from Marie Curie. Curie did fundamental research on radioactivity, is one of two people with Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, and got to name the two elements that she discovered. 2011 was the Year of Marie Curie in France and Poland. She has her own year in addition to her own unit. Even Spiderman doesn’t have those radioactive super powers!
Don’t Need Another Hero?
But on a day dedicated to getting more women into the technical arts, it’s also a little bit daunting to pick Lovelace or Curie as a symbol. Are you ever going to have something that equals “first computer program” or “two Nobel Prizes” on your résumé? We aren’t. It’s great to have heroes, but maybe we need more than just heroes — we also need mentors.
If you’re seriously interested in getting more women in science and technology, this is one of the most thoughtful essays on the subject that we’ve read. The basic thesis is that while men overestimate their abilities, women often underestimate them. Women tend to do better with positive reinforcement, and can feel inadequate when comparing themselves against impossible ideals like becoming the next Marie Curie.
These are broad conclusions, to be sure, but they also fit stories that we’ve been told by female friends both in and out of academia. And if that argument holds water more generally, then the best advice for people in a position of mentoring promising students of any gender is to reassure them that it doesn’t actually take Curie’s single-minded genius to make a contribution to the body of scientific knowledge.
99.9% of scientists do the best they can with what they’ve got, and build up the sum total of human knowledge brick by brick. Nobody should be discouraged by the almost impossibility of becoming the next Einstein or Curie. If you’ve got a scientifically minded female student or daughter, point out what she’s good at, and let her know that that’s enough. And then see where it leads.
Ada Lovelace’s father was Lord Byron, a romantic poet who had a melancholy streak a mile wide. When her father died, her mother noticed that Ada had talents in science and math and encouraged them vigorously — some say to counterbalance her father’s madness.
The point is, the young Ada Lovelace had talent and it was very actively fostered and encouraged by her mother, and then later Charles Babbage. She had good mentors to go along with her genius. That kind of support and encouragement ensured that Ada’s genius didn’t wither on the vine. Without the support of good mentors, who knows if Ada would have turned her attentions elsewhere, and the world would be a poorer place.
Mentoring the next generation in science, math, hacking, or whatever is one of the highest callings. Emphasizing the importance of mentorship in Ada Lovelace’s life shouldn’t detract from her superhero status at all, and doubling down on our efforts to bring up the next generation of superheroes is a fitting ideal on the day named after her. Who knows, that nerdy young woman you encourage today might just turn into the next Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu, or Rachel Carson. Or Ada Lovelace.