Enchantress of Number and The Concept of Universal Computation

When I think of geniuses who inspire me, Stephen Wolfram is near the top of the list. I’ve never met him but have followed him from a distance since I was introduced to Mathematica in grad school in the late 1980s.

Backchannel just published a a long, detailed exploration of the life of Ada Lovelace and her work with Charles Babbage that Wolfram wrote a few weeks ago. It’s awesome. By going through a lot of original source material, Wolfram formed his own view and discovered a number of things, including that the common reference to Ada Lovelace as “Enchantress of Numbers” is incorrect – Babbage actually referred her as the “Enchantress of Number” (9/9/1843 – letter from Babbage to Lovelace.)

In his article, Wolfram uses the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine as the focal point to undercover and explain what Ada Lovelace actually accomplished. He pieces together Lovelace and Babbage’s history and relationship to each other. He extrapolates their work and places it in clear historical context. And he states his conclusions about who made which contributions.

His writing is magnificent. I’ve read some of it in the past and tried one summer in Alaska to get through his epic book A New Kind of Science (with very little success, although I read a bunch of science fiction and all the Barry Eisler John Rain books that summer.)

Buried deep in the article are a number of gems. One that jumped out at me was:

“Ada seems to have understood with some clarity the traditional view of programming: that we engineer programs to do things we know how to do. But she also notes that in actually putting “the truths and the formulae of analysis” into a form amenable to the engine, “the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.” In other words — as I often point out — actually programming something inevitably lets one do more exploration of it.”

followed quickly by:

“representing mathematical truths in a computable form is likely to help one understand those truths themselves better.”

There’s a lot more like this. I encourage you to read the whole article slowly and thoughtfully as it’s a delight. But, if you want the punch line:

“Today, with computers and software all around us, the notion of universal computation seems almost obvious: of course we can use software to compute anything we want. But in the abstract, things might not be that way. And I think one can fairly say that Ada Lovelace was the first person ever to glimpse with any clarity what has become a defining phenomenon of our technology and even our civilization: the notion of universal computation.”

Last November, I read a number of biographies on my sabbatical including Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital AgeHere’s what I wrote about it then:

“I’ve read lots of articles on Ada Lovelace, but I’ve never read a comprehensive biography. The story was fascinating, especially when pondering what life much have been like in Victorian-era England and how much of any uphill cultural battle Ada Lovelace had. While we’ve got lots of challenges around gender still in our society, we’ve definitely made read progress in the last 150 years. This linkages to Lord Byron, Lady Byron, and Charles Babbage were fascinating and, in many ways, disheartening. Ada Lovelace was clearly a genius – I can’t even begin to imagine the amazing stuff she could have done if she was born in 1990 instead of 1815.”

Wolfram’s summary of what Lovelace might have accomplished if she hadn’t died so young (36 years old in 1852) was much more detailed and eloquent, but seems very consistent to what I have accumulated in my head. And I loved his conclusion.

“But the challenge is to be enough of an Ada to grasp what’s there — or at least to find an Ada who does. But at least now I think I have an idea of what the original Ada born 200 years ago today was like: a fitting personality on the road to universal computation and the present and future achievements of computational thinking.”

  • Free association. God, I wrote a lot of Ada in the 90’s… I know you’re not Christian but its the way I learned to tell others how I’m feeling good at this time of year, Merry Christmas!!

    • Merry Christmas back to you! I’m an equal opportunity atheist.

  • True genius is rare but becoming more ‘common’ due to the vastly greater global population.

  • I just caught that article on his blog a few days ago — wonderful deep read. Wolfram is a treasure (though this apparent hubris is tough to take at times); NKS has been on my shelf since it came out and I’ve only attempted it a couple of times. As much as I like to think I’m a smartie and with as many smart people I’ve worked with over the years, Ada’s genius makes me feel like a slightly more primitive species altogether (I’m okay with that!). Happy holidays btw!

    • I have the same “I think I’m a smartie” moments and then I read something about someone like Lovelace. Or I try to read something like NKS or some philosophy that Amy points me at and I realize I’ve got a certain kind of smartie in me, but there are many different kinds …

  • You’ve lost me. I couldn’t even make it through the blog post, and so I don’t think I would fare too well on the article or the related reading materials, ha ha!

    Happy Holidays.

    PS: For all it’s worth, Peter Thiel has observed and said that the world is even more short on courage than on genius (paraphrased).

    • You might surprise yourself. Wolfram is a much better writer than me.

      • Read it, you’re right, I got a lot more out of it than I had assumed; and so thanks for urging me to expand my breadth of knowledge. Like my mother would say, “I’ll go to bed less stupid tonight”.

        Holy f**k, I’ve never read a more comprehensive account of anything! That guy is *obsessed* — just the way you like them, LOL!

        Aside from learning a lovely new word — “polynomial” — what has fascinated me the most in the article is that one of the earliest “Aha” moments in computer science (and automation) was inspired by mechanical engineering:

        “I wish to God these tables had been made by steam!” 

        That thought will carry through all the way to AI — whatever that is, whenever it occurs.

        As for human drama, I’ve found the following statement to be completely FUBAR:

        “Ada’s funeral was small; neither her mother nor Babbage attended.” I can’t even begin to fathom that. That is utterly f**k’ed and unthinkable to me. No matter which way you slice that one, it indicates no less than a tragedy (unless there was a massive snow storm or something that day!).

        Lastly, I didn’t know about the Backchannel on Medium — that’s useful to know.

        I hope you’ve had one of the best years of your life.

        • Glad you read it. And you caught a few gems – the table/steam comment is priceless! Hope you had a great year also.

  • And I got to meet Mario Cantin in person! FTW Toronto …