Oct 07 2011

Ada Lovelace Day: who’s your favorite woman STEM researcher?

While I’ve been so caught up in work and trying desperately to manage blog dramatics today, I very nearly missed writing this post. Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day when you pick a woman who has inspired great change in this world in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and post about how they’ve influenced your life. Lovelace herself, as the daughter of the tempestuous and erratic poet Lord Byron but raised by her mother in a strict scientific framework, is widely regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Yes, before computers. It’s no wonder she’s a no-brainer for my pick.

Lovelace was deeply intrigued by Babbage’s plans for a tremendously complicated device he called the Analytical Engine, which was to combine the array of adding gears of his earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system. It was never built, but the design had all the essential elements of a modern computer.

In 1842 Lovelace translated a short article describing the Analytical Engine by the italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, for publication in England. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood the machine so well”. The final article is over three times the length of the original and contains several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as strikingly prescient observations on the potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and creation of music. Although Babbage and his assistants had sketched out programs for his engine before, Lovelace’s are the most elaborate and complete, and the first to be published; so she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer”. Babbage himself “spoke highly of her mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability — higher he said than of any one he knew, to prepare the descriptions connected with his calculating machine.”

Babbage’s computational engine is the stuff of steampunk wet dreams, and this woman — this incredible woman — built computer programs for a nonexistent computer, more than a hundred years before it was ever built.

Words fail when trying to describe the awe and reverence I hold for such genius.

Who’s your favorite STEM researcher, and why?


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  1. 1
    mouthyb, who should have been twins

    I’ll second Ada Lovelace, but I’m also quite fond of Grace Hopper, for whom computer bugs are named and who wrote the first programming language (FLOW-MATIC).

  2. 2
    Jason Thibeault

    YES! Grace Hopper is great, and as I pointed out on my Google+ post promoting this post, she also invented APT and vetted COBOL.

  3. 3
    Michael Fisher

    Evils-of-religion Ada Lovelace snippet: Ada died at 36 from cancer. Her mother refused the deathbed Ada the relief of opiates to keep her mind clear for repentance.

  4. 4

    Ah, the things you learn:
    “1969 – [Commander Grace Hopper] won the inaugural ‘computer sciences man of the year’ award from the Data Processing Management Association.”

    Stick that in your register and shift it… They didn’t take the hint about the name until 1979, apparently.

  5. 5
    Kiwi Sauce

    For me, it’s a toss-up between Rosalind Franklin or Elizabeth Loftus. Please don’t make me choose, I admire them both. :)

  6. 6
    John Morales

    What great change in this world in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math did Ada inspire?

  7. 7
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    I’ve been pushing Florence Nightingale recently, as she deserves to be known as a pioneer statistician, not just for holding a lamp.

  8. 8
    Michael Fisher

    Hypatia the 5th century pagan mathematician, philosopher, engineer-mechanic & astronomer is an attractive choice ~ a tough smart woman. However none of her original work survives today & she is known only through the voices of others ~ it is therefore difficult to assess her worth.

    For that reason I’ve settled on the writer, scientist, ecologist, environmentalist & marine biologist Rachel Carson In 1962 her Silent Spring was published. The book documented the dangers of pesticides and herbicides ~ the long-lasting presence of toxic chemicals in water and on land. The agricultural chemical industry went to town on Rachel, but the public’s concern was raised. JFK read Silent Spring and initiated a presidential advisory committee which backed her scientific claims. Rachel’s voice sparked the environmental movement.

    HERE is a very good site that gives an overview of her life. Despite the obstacles that were put in her way by her enemies, by the attitudes of her day & by sheer bad luck the woman persevered. She was an accomplished writer ~ extraordinarily lyrical & I urge you all to read her famous book & also at least any one of her other four books. You will be a better person for it.

  9. 9
    'Tis Himself

    My vote goes to Lise Meitner. Meitner worked together with Otto Hahn to develop the theory of nuclear fission. In 1944 Hahn won the Nobel Prize in physics but Meitner was slighted by the Nobel committee. Element 109, Meitnerium, is named in her honor.

  10. 10

    I don’t think I have a favorite deceased lady STEM researcher – they’re all a wonderful inspiration.

    But among those still living who hopefully have a long and even more industrious career ahead of them – Christina Smolke. She’s done a lot of fascinating and groundbreaking research in creating RNA structures to provide tunable control of gene expression in cells. I’ve been reading her work since I was an undergrad, and coming across it then was a major influence for me in deciding what I wanted to pursue in my graduate studies.

  11. 11

    Gale Sinatra for me. President of the American Educational Research Association, specializing in conceptual change and science education with a focus on evolution. More on her here:


    including a few of her publications:


    Don’t tell PZ though – she’s in education, and you know how he feels about those people.

  12. 12

    Emmy Noether, brilliant mathematician and physicist. I’m studying abstract algebra right now, and her work on ring theory is inspirational.

  13. 13

    Favorite? I dunno.

    But I really like some fictional Lovelace:

  14. 14

    Easy for me: Sophie Germain, who produced ground-breaking work in mathematics in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, despite having to educate herself and work largely in isolation.

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