Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! October 16, 2012

I hope you all have parties planned.  In case you don’t remember from last year’s celebration, Ada Lovelace day is a time to celebrate and bring attention to women in science, tech, and math.  Here’s how it got started and how it works today:

Ada Lovelace Day was launched in 2009 with a simple pledge on British civil action site, Pledgebank. Nearly 2,000 people signed up to blog about a woman in technology whom they admired on 24 March. The day was an astounding success, with contributors writing blog posts, newspaper columns and even a webcomic, Sydney Padua’s Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. The media covered Ada Lovelace Day with enthusiasm, including coverage from The GuardianThe Telegraph, the BBC and Computer Weekly amongst others.

Ada Lovelace Day this year will be held on 16 October. Over the coming year, FindingAda.com will develop into a resource for women in science, technology, engineering and maths, as well as for parents, teachers and lecturers who care about encouraging girls and young women to enter the STEM disciplines. Please do stay with us as we evolve!

Last year, I blogged about one fictional and one non-fictional woman scientist (and if you look back, you’ll know who guessed correctly on my new Halloween costume), and I plan to do the same thing this year.  So, first up:


Thomasina Coverly from Arcadia

I cannot recommend this play enough.  It unfolds on one set in two time periods.  The lit professors in the present are looking through primary source documents (and fighting about how to interpret them) that come from the same period as the part of the narrative set in the past.  So, as the audience, you might see the scholars misinterpret a document you saw created, or hear them mention an event that has not yet occurred in the other timeline.

In the past setting, Thomasina is a young woman in the early 1800s being tutored in mathematics and other subjects by Septimus Hodge.  She is bright, inventive, and inquisitive and is prone to notice and be confused by the weird bits of reality that most of ignore because we see them all the time.  Here’s where she spots the strangeness of entropy and one-way functions in her breakfast:

“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

The play ends up touching on fractal geometry (though it’s only known by that name in the present), and I love Thomasina’s high expectations for what math will do:

Thomasina: Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?

Septimus: We do.

Thomasina: Then why do your equations only describe the shapes of manufacture?

Septimus: I do not know.

Thomasina: Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.

Septimus: He has mastery of equations which lead into infinities where we cannot follow.

Thomasina: What a faint-heart! We must work outward from the middle of the maze. We will start with something simple. (She picks up the apple leaf.) I will plot this leaf and deduce its equation. You will be famous for being my tutor when Lord Byron is dead and forgotten.


Meanwhile, in real life, I want to draw your attention to Aminatou Sow and all the women of the Tech Ladies Mafia (which she founded).  GOOD did a nice feature piece on the group; here’s what Aminatou and a few other women had to say:

Aminatou Sow, digital strategist and founder, Tech LadyMafia: We started the Tech LadyMafia because we were tired of hearing about “the woman problem” in tech instead of hearing about solutions. TLM is a place to support tech women, promote each other’s work, provide resources, and get paid to do what we love. When I moved to D.C., my friend Reihan Salam, a smart, generous human, gave me this great piece of advice: “Meet awesome people and build an awesome team.“

Kate, attorney: I joined because after six years in the tech policy world, I was still having trouble finding people to answer my engineering and [computer science] questions without making me feel like an idiot. TLM is a way for me to get deeper into the science side of the legal work I do without the condescension I kept hitting when I reached out to tech guys I knew.

Jeanne Brooks, community & digital innovations expert: [It’s] based on a philosophy of horizontal loyalty versus mentorship [that] I learned from my friend and colleague Robert Hernandez of USC Annenberg. [M]entorship is often seen as a one-way vertical between an expert and an early career worker. Horizontal loyalty recognizes that every worker has skills and knowledge to share and creates space for the relationship to be mutually beneficial. Using this as a basic foundation for organizing yields positive and inclusive results.

Christine Corbett Moran, theoretical physicist: I was plagued by gender stereotypes as a child but was lucky enough to be admitted to and later attend MIT where I found my groove in a freshman class of 50 percent brilliant women and studied computer science. I’ve since worked in a variety of technical fields and believe technology is the key to changing the world, and only men changing the world means a worse world. Ergo, we need ladies in tech. The first and simplest step is to care about the problem—agree that it is a problem that is important to solve. So many in the valley and the world don’t take this step and as a result we have inferior projects, products and engineers.

If you watch the social science news, you probably saw that men and women rated resumes lower, thought the people who wrote them were less competent, and were less inclined to pass them on to an interview if there was a woman’s name at the top of the page.  The candidate was applying for a lab manager position, and the only variation was a male or female name on the top of the identical list of accomplishments.

That means the Tech Ladies Mafia isn’t just fighting against cartoon sexists, with moustaches, railroad tracks, and rope.  A lot of the problem is unconscious sexism, which might be carried out by women who want to be feminists, but subconsciously look for someone who matched the successful people they see around them.  The Tech Ladies Mafia helps women talk about how to work around gender-related problems that come up (how can you be assertive without being written off as shrill) and just took live an anonymous Q&A for broader questions about getting into STEM fields and negotiating sexism (on purpose or accidental) once you’re there.

So these women are awesome successors to Ada in their own fields and are helping other people follow in their footsteps.  (I’m a member of the listserv, more as a tech enthusiast than a lady currently in tech, though my job does involve some statistics and modelling).


If you want to get Ada-like superpowers, perhaps you should read Gödel, Escher, Bach, pick up some coding skills on Udacity’s intro classes, and/or take a crack at some of the problems on Project Euler. It’s a very beautiful world out there.


Post your recommendations for awesome women scientists in this thread “Tell Me Which Women Scientists/Authors/Geeks Inspire You” which has restricted commenting rules so it can be a list of resources, not a fight.


Updated to add: I’ll link to any Ada Lovelace posts by Tech Lady Mafiosi or blog readers if you alert me to them:

Pam the Webivore – “Justine Cassell and why I fell in love with Computer Science”

Eve Tushnet – on Debi Thomas, a surgeon and Olympic skater

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