Tag Archives: Annabella Milbanke

Ada Lovelace “… manipulative, aggressive, a drug addict …” and a genius but was she likable?

Ada Lovelace Day! Yes, it’s today, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, the day after Thanksgiving.  (You can check out my Oct. 14, 2014 posting for a brief Ada Lovelace history and information about an opera based on her life.)

Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson and 2015 seems to have been a banner year for Lovelace where 200th anniversary of her birth is being celebrated not only with a Day featuring events around the world but also with an exhibit  in the Science Museum (London, UK) and a documentary on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). An Oct. 12, 2015 article by Zoe Kleinman for BBC news online features both the exhibit and the documentary (Note: A link has been removed),

An exhibition showcasing the work and life of Victorian mathematician Ada Lovelace opens at the Science Museum in London this week [on Oct. 13, 2015].

The small exhibition includes a working model of the machine, which was never built because of funding issues.

Also on display is a lock of her hair.

Ada Lovelace was often unwell and was prescribed the opiate laudanum, to be taken with wine, by her doctor.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and mathematician Annabella Milbanke.

“Intelligent she might have been, but she was also manipulative and aggressive, a drug addict, a gambler and an adulteress,” said mathematician Hannah Fry, who made a BBC documentary about her.

Hannah Fry has written an essay about Lovelace and what she discovered while making the documentary that can be found here,

I need to make a confession. Before starting this film, intrigued as I was by her story, I questioned if Ada Lovelace truly deserved the pedestal on which she has been placed by modern scientists and mathematicians. I wondered if she is really worthy of standing as a symbol for our subject. One thing is in little doubt. Ada’s story is a captivating tale.

The 19th century amateur mathematician, best known for her detailed notes on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, is often held up as a symbol for women in science. Never more so now than in the 200th anniversary of her birth.

Alongside the character flaws, there are also some who still debate the validity of Ada’s accomplishments.

The machine which Ada prophesised could create music was Babbage’s invention after all – surely he must have known it’s potential?

Although she certainly published the world’s first computer programme, can we be sure she was its author. In any case, the machine was never built. Her work ultimately had no tangible impact on the world whatsoever.

For me, Doron [Doron Swade – an expert in the history of computing and, while a curator at the Science Museum in London, the man responsible for bringing Babbage’s Difference Engine to life] also put an end to the discussion of Lovelace’s contribution. Her notes and letters to Babbage make it clear that Ada understood the potential of computers in a way that he never did, and that nobody ever had. In Doron’s words:

“This is not a suggestive hint. This is not a backwards projection. This is Lovelace thumping the table saying this is what is significant about this machine “

Calculated conclusion

Her foresight was so extraordinary that it would take another hundred years and Alan Turing to recognise the significance of her work. But it was an achievement that was probably as much a product of her artistic heritage as her scientific training.

Fry experienced a revelation while working on the documentary,

I think I’d become so used to expecting my role models to be unnaturally perfect people and elevating them to unachievably high levels that I couldn’t see why Ada deserved to be there.

But in making this programme I’ve realised that I was thinking about things in the wrong way.

Ada was very, very far from perfect, but perfection is not a pre-requisite to accomplishing something impressive. Our science role models shouldn’t always be there to celebrate the unachievable.

We should also be normalising the mundane and the ordinary – embracing our flaws and our failures. And that’s exactly why she is the ideal inspirational figure.

Sadly, the sentiment about acceptance is undercut by the essay’s sidebar, Who was Ada Lovelace?,

She was a contradiction: self-centred and obstinate, yet lacking in confidence; charismatic and enchanting, yet forceful and manipulative.

Ultimately, Ada was probably quite a difficult person to like. [emphasis mine]

It’s 200 years later and women still have to be concerned with likability. Even Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games) worries about it as she notes in the Oct. 13, 2015 issue (no. 3) of Lenny (Lena Dunham’s [Girls tv series]  newsletter) h/t Laineygossip,

… if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.” At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.” This could be a young-person thing. It could be a personality thing. I’m sure it’s both. But this is an element of my personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue. Are we socially conditioned to behave this way? We’ve only been able to vote for what, 90 years? I’m seriously asking — my phone is on the counter and I’m on the couch, so a calculator is obviously out of the question. Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t “offend” or “scare” men?

She acknowledges that she’s well paid by any standard but she’s pointing out that her male colleagues don’t have to worry about whether or not they’ll be liked or viewed as difficult when they negotiate or even when they express an opinion,

A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.

… Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share.

Bringing it back to the topic of science, how often does a male scientist get described as “a difficult person to like.” It would take more than drug addiction, adultery, stating an opinion in a forthright fashion, and/or being manipulative for a man to earn that label.

Getting back to Ada and the celebrations, there’s an Oct. 12, 2015 preview of her Science Museum exhibit by Nicola Davis for the Guardian (Note: A link has been removed),

In the bowels of London’s Science Museum, Dr Tilly Blyth gingerly opens an envelope. Inside is a lock of long, dark hair tied with a green ribbon. It’s a curiously poignant moment. The lively, intelligent woman to whom it belonged died young, but her mathematical work with computer pioneer Charles Babbage has seen her become a paragon for women in science and technology. Gazing down at the tresses, the centuries seem to shrink away. Ladies and gentlemen, Ada Lovelace is in the room.

The exhibit opens today, October 13, 2015 and runs until March 31, 2016. You can find out more here.

Here’s my favourite Ada Lovelace image; it’s being used in the exhibit’s promotional materials,

AdaLovelace

Courtesy Science Museum (London, UK)

You can find out more about Ada Lovelace Day 2015 events such as the annual flagship event on the findingada.com website,

This year, our our annual flagship event is being hosted by the Conway Hall Ethical Society at Conway Hall, Holborn, on the evening of 13 October. Confirmed speakers include Mars Rover engineer Abigail Hutty, astrophysicist and science communicator Dr Jen Gupta, nanochemist Dr Suze Kundu, our very own Suw Charman-Anderson. Our compère again this year is the inimitable Helen Arney. Tickets cost £20 (general entry), £5 (concessions), and are available now!

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!