Dec 24 2015

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.”