Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Enchantress of Numbers

Back in January Jiro sent me a link to someone who committed to write a blog post about Ada Lovelace, but only if 1,000 other people would do it too. Kind of silly, and I might have (ok, WOULD have) ignored this, except that one of the reasons Chris and I liked the name Ada was the association with Ada Lovelace.

Who was Ada Lovelace? I'm glad you asked that question.

Ada Lovelace was a 19th century woman with a talent for mathematics. Often called the first computer programmer, she worked with the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. Babbage is credited with coming up with the idea for what we now know as a computer. Lovelace translated Luigi Menabrea's memoir on Babbage's writing on an "analytical engine", and in the process added some notes of her own on how the machine could calculate Bernoulli numbers. In essence, she wrote a computer program. Babbage is the one who called Lovelace "the enchantress of numbers." (Incidentally, she was also a countess and the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, though the two were never close.)

A blogger, angry that women in technology are often mistreated, decided to take action. Suw Charman-Anderson decided that one way to deal with this is to talk about female role models by highlighting women in technology. Suw made a pledge to write about Ada Lovelace on March 24, noting that "Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology." As I am not usually a tech writer, this is a bit of a stretch for me, but I do know several women in math and science that I respect and hope my daughter will see as role models as she grows up. In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, I want to express my appreciation for my economist mother.

My mother got into economics in the 60s, when a female economics PhD candidate was a rare thing. She focuses on micro-economics (vs the "big idea" theory stuff many people think of when they hear economics) and has always been a fan of hard data. She is an accomplished researcher who is not afraid of numbers and has long dug into data to prove a theory or investigate an idea. As a kid I colored on the back sides of her old-style green-bar paper, barely registering the flow of numbers on the other side. My mother encouraged me to believe I could do math and science, and while I did not always believe her, I got a lot from her attitude. She influenced my decision to go to a quantitatively focused graduate program, and that choice affected my career (positively). She is an influential economist, not only as a woman but among all economists studying health care and related fields. I am very proud of her. I should probably tell her that more. In fact, I think I will go call her right now. Thanks Mom!

(As I am likely to have two young babies when my mom has her birthday next June, I figure I should deal with all this mom-love stuff early.  In that vein, I also sent her an early birthday gift a couple of weeks ago - a book call Parentonomics by an economist dad. From reading his blog, I know he gets google updates when people use the phrase parentonomics online. So: Hi Joshua Gans! Thanks for writing a book that is perfect for my mom.)


  1. What a fantastic namesake. Thank you, I had no idea who Ada Lovelace was.

    Also, your mom sounds fabulous.

  2. No worries. I hope she likes it.

  3. I love this post!

    I have a degree in engineering from Caltech and was always the ONE girl in all my math and science classes growing up. Obviously I know who Ada Lovelace is and although I do not have girls, I hope to nurture little men who believe women can do math and science too!