Ada was born to the poet Lord Byron and to Anne Isabelle Milbanke who, having separated from her husband only a month after Ada was born, was keen that Ada learn mathematics be turned away from such pursuits as poetry, in case she inherited her father's rebelliousness and worrying moods! This did not work. Her life seems to have been full of complex Victorian scandals and not always generous comments from other people. It is only recently that her work with Charles Babbage and his analytical engine seems to have become well-known. She spent many months translating an article about it and writing her own set of notes for its use. As this website puts it,
Ada called herself "an Analyst (& Metaphysician)," and the combination was put to use in the Notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for "developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity." Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music.Not being much of a one for computer programs myself, I will turn to three science heroines I know. Finding Ada asks us to write about just one. But that's never really been my thing; I've always seen science as a complex and often social process, practically every achievement being made by many people one way or another. Well folks, if you want one favourite you can have Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, but now for lots more . . .
If I have to pick one right now I think I'll go for Dr Helen Walker, who's not only running She is an Astronomer, but got an IAU Resolution - a positive move for female astronomers across the entire world - up and running. In a few days we're going to be advertising the She is an Astronomer conference which should take place in April. Helen works on satellites, our atmosphere, dust around stars old and young, and is one of the three Scientific Secretaries for the Royal Astronomical Society. She has published around 100 papers. When asked about her career with Rutherford Appleton Laboratories, she says, "I would like RAL to recognise the contribution I make, and this would normally be through promotion, but that’s not going to happen. I do not fit the accepted model, and I enjoy my semi-detached status working with scientists outside the UK." But she predicts that younger women astronomers will have more opportunities than she did. I've met her a couple of times and she gave a great impression of strength and calmness. I'm really looking forward to helping out with her conference!
Another woman I feel very honoured to have met is Jill Tarter of SETI. She is named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and when I shuffled up to talk to her after Astrofest she left an impression as strong as Helen's. Obviously I had to wait some time to get to her, but when she turned to me, she immediately took my Solar System shirt and stretched it a little to admire it in full! After securing private funding for SETI to continue its work after public funders gave it up, after the (I am told) extreme annoyance of being the inspiration for the character Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's "Contact", and goodness knows how much more, Jill is still full of new ideas for SETI. In fact, "Galaxy Zoo on speed" is a phrase that came up: there are some distinctly interesting plans ahead, and the public may be able to take a more active role in SETI than simply downloading a program. That was why I went to talk to her, and it might just turn out that I have a little contribution to make - I am on tenterhooks with hope . . .
One more lady to mention: our very own Jules Wilkinson, who has just taken over as moderator for the forums of Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo - about which more as soon as I have time. Jules has set both forums up beautifully, though will soon to leave Solar Stormwatch in the capable hands of Els and two or three others. She is a tireless force for knowledge and enjoyment at Galaxy Zoo, has collected galaxies for and prepared beautiful help threads, and has also got us to do 365 Days of Astrophotography - I don't think a single day has been missed yet! Jules has just retired and can devote herself to astronomy now; she's already been studying for it at the OU and indeed pushed me into doing the same thing. And just a couple of days ago, another of her pictures made AAPOD. Good for you, Jules!
There are a great many women - and men - doing an outstanding job in astronomy, not to mention other sciences and technology, these days. Three cheers for them all - I wish I could write about so many more, but sleep calls. But I hope Ada Lovelace Day gets a lot of good blogs about a huge variety!
Update: I think the best Ada Lovelace story has to be Hedy Lamarr at Vagina Dentata. What do you think?