Laurie Winkless on how the pioneering mathematician has inspired a new generation of women
It is Thursday 14th October 2014, and I’m writing you this letter from the comfort of my desk. But I’m not using paper and ink, I am using a laptop computer – an electronic device that translates magnetic zeroes and ones into images, text, symbols and music. It does all of the things that you and Charles Babbage envisioned in his Analytical Engine, and much more. This letter won’t be sent by post either, instead it will be instantly viewable from all over the Earth, thanks to a worldwide network of cables that transmit information as packets of light (yes, really!) and electronic platforms that orbit the Earth – they’re called satellites, but we don’t have time to go into that!
Really, I want to use this opportunity to try to express just how important you have been to women like me, and to help you realise the role you’ve had to play in forging the path for us. The world has changed a lot since you left it – the 14th of October is now officially known as Ada Lovelace Day, a global celebration of your legacy as well as that of all women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM for short). Your mother did the world a great service in raising you surrounded by science, mathematics and machines, unlike so many of your contemporaries. These days, millions of young women study maths and science subjects at school. Whilst we’ve not yet reached parity in all STEM subjects – this year, 2 out of every 5 students who took A-level maths (exams taken at around the age of 18) were female – progress is slowly being made.
Women are no longer banned from universities and can even earn degrees, with record numbers now graduating from STEM subjects. There are thousands of female professors scattered across the science landscape (although not as many as I’d like!), and their skills and talent have not gone unnoticed – there are now schemes and campaigns across the world that aim to encourage more women to study and work in STEM sectors. Engineering is becoming so popular that over 50,000 people have watched engineers dance around the streets of London, and every week, scientists and mathematicians speak to millions of people across the globe.
Fifty years after your death, an inventor and visionary from Sweden named Alfred Nobel founded the Nobel Prizes, which aimed to reward scientists whose discoveries “[…] have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” If only you had been around to see it, you’d have been in with a shot. As it stands, sixteen women have been awarded Nobel Prizes in the fields of medicine, physics and chemistry – far too few in my estimation. But I am hopeful that in time, we’ll see changes there too.
Today, STEM-women are developing the world’s fastest car, building some of its tallest structures, and searching out and inventing “the next big thing”. They lead the world’s largest computing companies and govern some of its major nations. Many of us fail to make quite as much impact, but have nonetheless forged valuable careers – across the world, millions of women are working at various levels in the STEM-world. Some of us found a home-away-from-home in writing about science, while others solve challenges in the lab every day. But we do it because we love it – science simply makes me happy.
200 years after your birth, you may not have expected your name to live on. But it has, and today is the day we all remind ourselves why. To my mind, what you and the generations of female STEM-pioneers who followed you did was to open the door, so that the rest of us can pass through. Sir Isaac Newton was once quoted as saying “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” and for me, that is true for all women now working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We owe a great debt of gratitude to you Ada. Thanks for being the first
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