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Posts Tagged ‘history’

10 DECEMBER, 2014

How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Became the World’s First Computer Programmer

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How a young woman with the uncommon talent of applying poetic imagination to science envisioned the Symbolic Medea that would become the modern computer, sparking the birth of the digital age.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, later came to be known simply as Ada Lovelace. Today, she is celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer — the first person to marry the mathematical capabilities of computational machines with the poetic possibilities of symbolic logic applied with imagination. This peculiar combination was the product of Ada’s equally peculiar — and in many ways trying — parenting.

Eleven months before her birth, her father, the great Romantic poet and scandalous playboy Lord Byron, had reluctantly married her mother, Annabella Milbanke, a reserved and mathematically gifted young woman from a wealthy family — reluctantly, because Byron saw in Annabella less a romantic prospect than a hedge against his own dangerous passions, which had carried him along a conveyer belt of indiscriminate affairs with both men and women.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress (Portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1835)

But shortly after Ada was conceived, Lady Byron began suspecting her husband’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. Five weeks after Ada’s birth, Annabella decided to seek a separation. Her attorneys sent Lord Byron a letter stating that “Lady B. positively affirms that she has not at any time spread reports injurious to Lord Byrons [sic] character” — with the subtle but clear implication that unless Lord Byron complies, she might. The poet now came to see his wife, whom he had once called “Princess of Parallelograms” in affectionate reverence for her mathematical talents, as a calculating antagonist, a “Mathematical Medea,” and later came to mock her in his famous epic poem Don Juan: “Her favourite science was the mathematical… She was a walking calculation.”

Augusta Ada Byron as a child

Ada was never to meet her father, who died in Greece the age of thirty-six. Ada was eight. On his deathbed, he implored his valet: “Oh, my poor dear child! — my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.” The girl was raised by her mother, who was bent on eradicating any trace of her father’s influence by immersing her in science and math from the time she was four. At twelve, Ada became fascinated by mechanical engineering and wrote a book called Flyology, in which she illustrated with her own plates her plan for constructing a flying apparatus. And yet she felt that part of her — the poetic part — was being repressed. In a bout of teenage defiance, she wrote to her mother:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

Indeed, the very friction that had caused her parents to separate created the fusion that made Ada a pioneer of “poetical science.”

That fruitful friction is what Walter Isaacson explores as he profiles Ada in the opening chapter of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (public library | IndieBound), alongside such trailblazers as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, and Stewart Brand. Isaacson writes:

Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait that her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling “poetical science,” which linked her rebellious imagination to her enchantment with numbers. For many, including her father, the rarefied sensibilities of the Romantic era clashed with the techno-excitement of the Industrial Revolution. But Ada was comfortable at the intersection of both eras.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840)

When she was only seventeen, Ada attended one of legendary English polymath Charles Babbage’s equally legendary salons. There, amid the dancing, readings, and intellectual games, Babbage performed a dramatic demonstration of his Difference Engine, a beast of a calculating machine he was building. Ada was instantly captivated by its poetical possibilities, far beyond what the machine’s own inventor had envisioned. Later, one of her friends would remark: “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”

Isaacson outlines the significance of that moment, in both Ada’s life and the trajectory of our culture:

Ada’s love of both poetry and math primed her to see beauty in a computing machine. She was an exemplar of the era of Romantic science, which was characterized by a lyrical enthusiasm for invention and discovery.

[…]

It was a time not unlike our own. The advances of the Industrial Revolution, including the steam engine, mechanical loom, and telegraph, transformed the nineteenth century in much the same way that the advances of the Digital Revolution — the computer, microchip, and Internet — have transformed our own. At the heart of both eras were innovators who combined imagination and passion with wondrous technology, a mix that produced Ada’s poetical science and what the twentieth-century poet Richard Brautigan would call “machines of loving grace.”

Enchanted by the prospect of the “poetical science” she imagined possible, Ada set out to convince Charles Babbage to be her mentor. She pitched him in a letter:

I have a peculiar way of learning, and I think it must be a peculiar man to teach me successfully… Do not reckon me conceited, … but I believe I have the power of going just as far as I like in such pursuits, and where there is so decided a taste, I should almost say a passion, as I have for them, I question if there is not always some portion of natural genius even.

Here, Isaacson makes a peculiar remark: “Whether due to her opiates or her breeding or both,” he writes in quoting that letter, “she developed a somewhat outsize opinion of her own talents and began to describe herself as a genius.” The irony, of course, is that she was a genius — Isaacson himself acknowledges that by the very act of choosing to open his biography of innovation with her. But would a man of such ability and such unflinching confidence in that ability be called out for his “outsize opinion,” for being someone with an “exalted view of [his] talents,” as Isaacson later writes of Ada? If a woman of her indisputable brilliance can’t be proud of her own talent without being dubbed delusional, then, surely, there is little hope for the rest of us mere female mortals to make any claim to confidence without being accused of hubris.

To be sure, if Isaacson didn’t see the immense value of Ada’s cultural contribution, he would not have included her in the book — a book that opens and closes with her, no less. These remarks, then, are perhaps less a matter of lamentable personal opinion than a reflection of limiting cultural conventions and our ambivalence about the admissible level of confidence a woman can have in her own talents.

Isaacson, indeed — despite disputing whether Ada deserves anointment as “the world’s first computer programmer” commonly attributed to her — makes the appropriateness of celebrating her contribution clear:

Ada’s ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times. Despite her mother’s efforts, she remained her father’s daughter, with a poetic sensibility that allowed her to view an equation as a brushstroke that painted an aspect of nature’s physical splendor, just as she could visualize the “wine-dark sea” or a woman who “walks in beauty, like the night.” But math’s appeal went even deeper; it was spiritual. Math “constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world,” she said, and it allows us to portray the “changes of mutual relationship” that unfold in creation. It is “the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator’s works.”

This ability to apply imagination to science characterized the Industrial Revolution as well as the computer revolution, for which Ada was to become a patron saint. She was able, as she told Babbage, to understand the connection between poetry and analysis in ways that transcended her father’s talents. “I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst; for with me the two go together indissolubly,” she wrote.

But Ada’s most important contribution came from her role as both a vocal champion of Babbage’s ideas, at a time when society questioned them as ludicrous, and as an amplifier of their potential beyond what Babbage himself had imagined. Isaacson writes:

Ada Lovelace fully appreciated the concept of a general-purpose machine. More important, she envisioned an attribute that might make it truly amazing: it could potentially process not only numbers but any symbolic notations, including musical and artistic ones. She saw the poetry in such an idea, and she set out to encourage others to see it as well.

Trial model of Babbage's Analytical Engine, completed after his death (Science Museum)

In her 1843 supplement to Babbage’s Analytical Engine, simply titled Notes, she outlined four essential concepts that would shape the birth of modern computing a century later. First, she envisioned a general-purpose machine capable not only of performing preprogrammed tasks but also of being reprogrammed to execute a practically unlimited range of operations — in other words, as Isaacson points out, she envisioned the modern computer.

Her second concept would become a cornerstone of the digital age — the idea that such a machine could handle far more than mathematical calculations; that it could be a Symbolic Medea capable of processing musical and artistic notations. Isaacson writes:

This insight would become the core concept of the digital age: any piece of content, data, or information — music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video — could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines. Even Babbage failed to see this fully; he focused on numbers. But Ada realized that the digits on the cogs could represent things other than mathematical quantities. Thus did she make the conceptual leap from machines that were mere calculators to ones that we now call computers.

Her third innovation was a step-by-step outline of “the workings of what we now call a computer program or algorithm.” But it was her fourth one, Isaacson notes, that was and still remains most momentous — the question of whether machines can think independently, which we still struggle to answer in the age of Siri-inspired fantasies like the movie Her. Ada wrote in her Notes:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.

In the closing chapter, titled “Ada Forever,” Isaacson considers the enduring implications of this question:

Ada might also be justified in boasting that she was correct, at least thus far, in her more controversial contention: that no computer, no matter how powerful, would ever truly be a “thinking” machine. A century after she died, Alan Turing dubbed this “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” and tried to dismiss it by providing an operational definition of a thinking machine — that a person submitting questions could not distinguish the machine from a human — and predicting that a computer would pass this test within a few decades. But it’s now been more than sixty years, and the machines that attempt to fool people on the test are at best engaging in lame conversation tricks rather than actual thinking. Certainly none has cleared Ada’s higher bar of being able to “originate” any thoughts of its own.

In encapsulating Ada’s ultimate legacy, Isaacson once again touches on our ambivalence about the mythologies of genius — perhaps even more so of women’s genius — and finds wisdom in her own words:

As she herself wrote in those “Notes,” referring to the Analytical Engine but in words that also describe her fluctuating reputation, “In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case.”

The reality is that Ada’s contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of the human imagination, together weaving tapestries as beautiful as those from Jacquard’s loom. Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.

Ada died of progressively debilitating uterine cancer in 1852, when she was thirty-six — the same age as Lord Byron. She requested that she be buried in a country grave, alongside the father whom she never knew but whose poetical sensibility profoundly shaped her own genius of “poetical science.”

The Innovators goes on to trace Ada’s influence as it reverberates through the seminal work of a stable of technological pioneers over the century and a half since her death. Complement it with Ada’s spirited letter on science and religion.

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10 DECEMBER, 2014

Elie Wiesel’s Timely Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on Human Rights and Our Shared Duty in Ending Injustice

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“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In 1986, at the age of fifty-eight, Romanian-born Jewish-American writer and political activist Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee called him a “messenger to mankind.” Wiesel lived up to that moniker with exquisite eloquence on December 10 that year — exactly ninety years after Alfred Nobel died — as he took the stage at Norway’s Oslo City Hall and delivered a spectacular speech on justice, oppression, and our individual responsibility in our shared freedom. The address was eventually included in Elie Wiesel: Messenger for Peace (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades later, Wiesel’s words ring with discomfiting timeliness as we are jolted out of our generational hubris, out of the illusion of progress, forced to confront the contemporary realities of racism, torture, and other injustice against the human experience. But alongside the reminder of how tragically we have failed Wiesel’s vision is also the promise of possibility reminding us what soaring heights of the human spirit we are capable of reaching if we choose to feed not our lowest impulses but our most exalted. Above all, Wiesel issues an assurance that these choices are not grandiose and reserved for those in power but daily and deeply personal, found in the quality of intention with which we each live our lives.

With the hard-earned wisdom of his own experience as a Holocaust survivor, memorably recounted in his iconic memoir Night, Wiesel extols our duty to speak up against injustice even when the world retreats into the hideout of silence:

I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?

And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

Wiesel reminds us that even politically momentous dissent always begins with a personal act — with a single voice refusing to be silenced:

There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free.

[…]

There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude. No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

Complement with Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning and Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize herself five years later, on freedom from fear, then revisit William Faulkner’s piercing Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, Albert Camus’s beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher upon receiving the coveted accolade, and the story of why Jean Paul Sartre became the first person to decline the prestigious prize.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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09 DECEMBER, 2014

Henri Rousseau’s Heartening Story of Success after a Lifetime of Rejection, Illustrated

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How a kind old man who spent his life in poverty, worked as a toll collector, and was entirely self-taught became one of the world’s greatest artists.

“People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her fantastic manifesto for the creative life, one of the best books of the year, “because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized.” Few artists in history have lived through this street combat with more dignity and resilience of spirit than French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844–September 2, 1910). Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway.

I was instantly taken with The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (public library | IndieBound) by writer Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall not only because I have a soft spot for beautifully illustrated biographies that introduce young readers to inspiring cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but also because it tells an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.

Henri Rousseau wants to be an artist.
Not a single person has ever told him he is talented.
He’s a toll collector.
He’s forty years old.

But he buys some canvas, paint, and brushes, and starts painting anyway.

Rousseau’s impulse for art sprang from his deep love of nature — a manifestation of the very thing that seventeen-year-old Virginia Woolf intuited when she wrote in her diary that the arts “imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see”.

Unable to afford art lessons, Rousseau educated himself by going to the Louvre to study the paintings of his favorite artists and examining photographs, magazines, and catalogs to learn about the anatomy of the human body.

At the age of forty-one, he showed his work as part of a big art exhibition, but his art — vibrant, flat, seemingly childish — was met, as Markel writes, with “only mean things.” Even so, Rousseau saved the reviews and pasted them into his scrapbook.

With his voracious appetite for inspiration, Rousseau visited the World’s Fair, where he was especially enchanted by the exhibits of exotic lands. “They remind him of adventure stories he loved when he was a boy,” Markel writes. The vivid images haunted him for days, until he finally turned to the easel to exorcise his restless imagination.

He holds his paintbrush to the canvas. A tiger crawls out. Lightning strikes, and wind whips the jungle grass.

Sometimes Henri is so startled by what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air.

But for all his earnest creative exuberance, he is met with derision.

Every year Henri goes back to the art exhibition to show new paintings. He fusses over the canvases and retouches them until the last minute.

And every year the art experts make fun of him. They say it looks like he closed his eyes and painted with his feet.

And yet Rousseau manages to embody Georgia O’Keeffe’s credo that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant… making your unknown known is the important thing” — he continues to paint, to study nature, and to rejoice in the process itself.

One night, he dreams up a painting of which he is especially proud, depicting a lion looking over a sleeping gypsy with friendly curiosity.

Once again he takes his work to the art show. This time, perhaps, he’ll please the experts. His pulse races.

The experts say he paints like a child. “If you want to have a good laugh,” one of them writes, “go see the paintings by Henri Rousseau.”

By now Henry is used to the nasty critics. He knows his shapes are simpler and flatter than everyone else’s, but he thinks that makes them lovely.

Everything he earns by giving music lessons, he spends on art supplies. But he lives by Thoreau’s definition of success.

His home is a shabby little studio, where one pot of stew must last the whole week. But every morning he wakes up and smiles at his pictures.

At sixty-one, Rousseau is still living in poverty, but happily paints his jubilant junglescapes. He continues to hope for critical acclaim and continues to be denied it, cruelly, by the “experts,” one of whom even says that “only cavemen would be impressed by his art.”

At last, Rousseau, already an old man, gets a break — but the recognition comes from a new generation of younger artists, who befriend him and come to admire his work. More than his talent and his stomach for criticism, however, one comes to admire his immensely kind and generous heart.

Whenever Henri has money to spare, and stages a concert in his little studio, all the artists come. Along with the grocer, locksmith, and other folks from the neighborhood, they listen to Henri’s students and friends play their musical instruments. Henri gives the shiniest, reddest apples to the children.

Eventually, even Picasso pays heed and throws old Henri a banquet, at which “the old man sits upon a makeshift throne” playing his violin as people dance and celebrate around him, his heart floating “like a hot-air balloon above the fields.”

At the end of his life, Rousseau paints his masterwork “The Dream” and finally becomes successful by a public standard as the critics, at last, grant him acclaim. But the beautiful irony and the ennobling message of the story is that he was successful all along, for he had found his purpose — a feat with which even Van Gogh struggled for years — and filled each day with the invigorating joy of making his unknown known.

A hundred years later, the flowers still blossom, the monkeys still frolic, and the snakes keep slithering through Henri’s hot jungles. His paintings now hang in museums all over the world. And do you think experts call them “foolish,” “clumsy,” or “monstrous”? Mais non! They call them works of art.

By an old man,
by a onetime toll collector,
by one of the most gifted self-taught artists in history:
Henri Rousseau

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with Ray Bradbury on weathering the storm of rejection and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your art.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.