'What Would Ada Say?'

Knowing about Ada Lovelace's "poetical science" might have kept me in tech -- and her integrated, big-picture perspective could draw more girls to math today.

In 1828, when Ada Lovelace was 12, she wrote and illustrated Flyology, a guide to self-propelled human flight. At 27, she devised the first algorithm meant to be executed by a machine and predicted that same device might one day execute more abstract operations -- might even compose music.

School kids learn about this Ada, the world's first computer programmer and tech visionary. But Ada was much more than that. She was at her core a philosopher who viewed mathematics as an interpretative lens. She married the analytical with the creative in what she called "poetical science," which fostered innovation and allowed a big-picture perspective.

Math, Ada wrote, is "the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world." She sensed oneness in human existence: "The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up ... in one great and harmonious whole."

Ada's integrated, non-dichotomous view of the world is at least as important as what she did. I wish I'd understood Ada better in the 80s when I was a math major trying to find my way, a girl hungry for inspiration and perspective. Even more, I wish girls knew more about Ada's poetical science today.

Ada loved math in spite of its being all but forced on her by her mother to offset what she saw as excessive imagination and instability in Ada's father, the poet Lord Byron. After her divorce from Byron, Ada's mother imposed on her a program of home schooling that emphasized logic and reason.

But it was Ada's fortune to have a series of tutors -- including the mathematician Mary Somerville -- who encouraged creativity even as they schooled her in math and science. To write Flyology, Ada studied avian anatomy, drew diagrams, and wrote fanciful descriptions of what the apparatus might do. As she grew older and her passion for math intensified, so too did her interest in its use as "the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator's works."

I left tech less because of discrimination or any external force than because of my own inability to see what the future could hold. As a math major at Cornell in the 80s I'd loved the process of math: the struggle, the click, the sense of expansion. I loved the orderliness of numbers -- the fact, for instance, that the primes fell on set diagonals when you placed the integers in a spiral. I liked math, but I wasn't sure what to do with it, or what it really meant. Exposure to Ada's expansive, passionate poetical science might have provided the wide-angle perspective that I lacked.

From early on, Ada's view of her work was clear. "I wish to add my mite toward expounding and interpreting the Almighty, and his laws and works, for the most effective use of mankind," she wrote of her interests, which included a "calculus of the nervous system" to elucidate the origins of human thought and feeling.

After graduation I wound up in New York, at an actuarial firm in the financial district. Evenings I sat in a nearby classroom, studying for one of the many exams required to become a full-fledged actuary. The job I held in my late 20s, doing satellite data reduction, was similarly zeroed in. I longed for meaning and context.

Ada, I imagine, would have much to say about the dearth of girls and women interested in tech. She would argue that the math and science we teach need to be not only meaningful but also as creatively engaging as the writing of Flyology was for her. She likely would suggest an approach both practical, so the imagination can root itself in application, and philosophical, as a means to come to know the world.

It's important, of course, to rid our schools and workplaces of open discrimination and, more challenging, the unconscious gender bias that's so pervasive. But the most potent change will occur when girls believe, sustainably, "that brain of mine is more than merely mortal," as Ada put it. Real change will come when we instill her belief that math is the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world.

Math is a lens, maybe even a creed. Math led Ada to understanding in biology, music and engineering -- and, as the cornerstone of poetical science, was a destination of its own. Whether her perspective was uniquely female is arguable; what is clear is that math sustained her through bouts of illness and other personal difficulties and was a guiding force in her life.

As far as I am from my tech career, I miss math: the economy of symbols, the patterns, the satisfactions of a proof. I miss the click. Sometimes I think about what might have happened if I'd known about Ada's poetical-science vision. I wonder what could have been if I'd stayed in tech, doing math rather than watching from the sidelines.

[Ada Lovelace Day is October 13, and the bicentenary of her birth is December 10, 2015.]