Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

10 DECEMBER, 2013

Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, on Science and Religion

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“Everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

Science and religion have long been pitted as diametric opposites, and yet some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality — there’s Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray, Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe, Carl Sagan on the reverence of science, Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality, and Isaac Asimov on science and spirituality. But one of history’s most poignant meditations on the subject comes from the English mathematician and writer Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852), better-known as Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and commonly considered the world’s first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In a 1844 letter to her Somerset neighbor, the experimenter in electricity Andrew Crosse, found in Betty A. Toole’s altogether fantastic Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer (public library), Lovelace — the child of an era still characterized by extreme, all-permeating religiosity that governed nearly all aspects of public and private life — considers the spiritual quality of science, inseparable from the teaching of (at that time, religious) philosophy.

I am more than ever now the bride of science. Religion to me is science, and science is religion. In that deeply-felt truth lies the secret of my intense devotion to the reading of God’s natural works… And when I behold the scientific and so-called philosophers full of selfish feelings, and of a tendency to war against circumstances and Providence, I say to myself: They are not true priests, they are but half prophets — if not absolutely false ones. They have read the great page simply with the physical eye, and with none of the spirit within. The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the physical and the moral facts of the universe.

Whereas, all and everything is naturally related and interconnected. A volume could I write on this subject…

Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers is an altogether illuminating read, shedding light on the life and mind of one of history’s most deserving yet unsung pioneers of the technologies that shape our lives today.

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06 DECEMBER, 2013

Dame Steve Shirley, the World’s First Freelance Programmer

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“Few things in life are as solid as they seem.”

When she was five years old, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, born Vera Buchthal, fled Nazi Germany as a child refugee, escaping certain death and plunging into a life that would show her a quieter yet oppressively persistent kind of discrimination and injustice. A girl with a strong passion for mathematics, she had to transfer to the boys’ school to get a proper education, where she first became aware of her gender’s second-class status — but she, a voracious reader, took refuge in the school library and devoured countless books spanning every imaginable field. As a young woman drawn to the computing industry, she saw that signing her name opened no doors, so she adopted the nickname Steve and began signing as “Steve Shirley.” Suddenly, doors swung open.

Steve Shirley went on to become the world’s first freelance programmer and founded the software company F.I. Group in 1962, one of the UK’s earliest startups. It was a revolutionary company, writing software only — an outrageous proposition at the time. It was managed and operated by highly skilled female engineers (“We hired men. If they were good enough.”), who worked from home — also unthinkable amidst the era’s gender biases and social norms. And yet they forged forward, forever changing the course of entrepreneurship and women in technology. When F.I. was eventually floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1996, it earned hundred of millions of pounds. Today, she is bringing that same zest for change and betterment to her work in philanthropy.

This fantastic short film, produced by Google as part of a series highlighting women’s involvement in the early days of computing, tells Dame Steve Shirley’s remarkable and heartening story:

The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I’m very motivated to make sure that each day is worth living, that my life was worth saving… I had built a determination that I was not going to let other people define me, to break through, to build something new, to not be put off by the conventions of the day.

In her memoir, Let It Go (public library), Dame Steve further elaborates on this disposition, tracing how her childhood experience of being sent away into safety by her German parents and raised by kindly strangers in the UK shaped her outlook on life, work, and philanthropy:

I have known failure and heartbreak as well as success, but I have never quite lost sight of two life-defining ideas – both of which I can trace back to my arrival in England all those years ago as a terrified, weeping child refugee.

The first is the conviction that even in the blackest moments of despair there is hope, if one can find the courage to pursue it. Sometimes the worst is less overwhelmingly awful than we fear; sometimes the right attitude can create good even from life’s most terrible situations.

My second big idea is the matching conviction that, even though I ostensibly lost everything when my parents were forced to send me away, I was not just the victim of bigotry and cruelty. I was also the fortunate beneficiary of the unearned generosity of many people: the Jewish and Christian activists who set up the Kindertransport, the Quakers who kept the project going when it ran out of money, the ordinary people who chipped in with the various tedious administrative tasks that allowed the project to function, the Catholic nuns who helped to educate me, and the quiet, middle-aged, nominally Anglican couple who took me in.

Without my being fully aware of what was going on or why, a large number of good-natured strangers took it upon themselves to save my life. It took me some years to digest this fact and its implications. But, once I had, a simple resolution took root deep in my heart: I had to make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving.

I may not always have succeeded in this aim. But I have at least learnt lessons along the way: about how to make things happen, how to deal with setbacks and how to turn the most improbable dreams into realities.

She reflects on her separation from her birth parents:

Looking back today, from the other end of a life that has been exceptionally rich in nearly every sense, I can see that most of my subsequent achievements can be traced back to that unnatural separation. It marked the beginning of a narrative far more interesting than the one that had originally been scripted for me. But it also taught me, with the ending of my first life, a profound lesson: that few things in life are as solid as they seem; that tomorrow will not always resemble today; and that wholesale change, though often terrifying, is not necessarily synonymous with catastrophe.

Let It Go goes on to trace just how this extraordinary woman turned “improbable dreams into realities” — a story of bravery, determination, and triumphant ingenuity against even the most inauspicious of odds.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2013

November 14, 1963: The First-Ever Footage from Space

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“Through the magic of the camera, earthlings take their first ride into space.”

On November 14, 1963, the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile shot into space from the South Atlantic at 17,000 miles per hour. This unmanned booster would eventually carry the Gemini space capsules, NASA’s second manned mission to space, succeeding Mercury and preceding Apollo. But what made that fateful November morning particularly noteworthy was something else: Mounted on the second stage of the missile was a camera that offered a preview of what the astronauts would see from space and provided the first-ever footage from the cosmos.

This vintage newsreel captures the historic moment in 59 seconds:

The curvature of the Earth is plainly visible. Through the magic of the camera, earthlings take their first ride into space.

This humble yet monumental black-and-white clip comes as a particularly poignant testament to our progress on the eve of NASA’s big Cassini reveal — an extraordinary mosaic of images captured with Cassini’s bleeding-edge cameras aimed at Saturn, including a view of Carl Sagan’s legendary “pale blue dot” and the first-ever view of the Earth and Moon in a single image viewed from the outer Solar System:

For more awe at our continuous cosmic adventure, see this visual history of space in 250 milestones.

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