An almost perfect embodiment of the union of opposites -- in this case science and poetry -- Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron, is best remembered among the cognoscenti for her namesake, the Department of Defense's computer language "Ada." This legacy is the result of her writings on Charles Babbage's plans for an "Analytical Engine," now recognized as the precursor to modern computers. In The Bride of Science Benjamin Woolley links Ada's personal struggles to the larger context of historical change, creating a fascinating lens through which to view the incredible social disruption during the early years of the industrial revolution and the ambivalence these changes wrought.
Ada's life spanned the years 1815 to 1852, during which the newly introduced rail lines and telegraph access made the power of technology a reality in people's lives. The Romantic movement was the backlash against those who would attempt to apply "scientific" thinking to every aspect of the human experience. As one of the Romantic movement's greatest prophets, Lord Byron's excessive indulgence of various illicit desires (one being particularly dangerous) led him to marry a woman who deluded herself into believing she could save him. Ada's mother, Annabella, was the dominant force in her life -- a self-righteous and self-serving woman who embraced the new virtues of rationality.
The marriage lasted barely long enough for Annabella to become pregnant, and she spent the rest of her life justifying the infamous separation from her celebrity husband. Annabella barred Byron from any contact with his daughter and put Ada on a strict regimen of moral and mathematical study to suppress any Byronic tendencies Ada may have inherited. To the public eye, Ada was a curiosity. Put upon in an entirely modern way, Ada was famous from the day she was born. Although Ada took up science with enthusiasm, her Byronic eccentricities and passions were not extinguished by logic. Like her father, Ada looked to marriage to save her, but her husband, the future Earl of Lovelace, was not able to control her in the end.
As an adult, Ada set out to find her mission, which she hoped would combine her two halves, and prove that the product of science and poetry would produce genius, not a monstrosity. Her work with Babbage was one attempt at a "poetical science" requiring imagination and rigor. She also indulged in many of the other popular ideas of the day, such as phrenology and mesmerism, with a more discerning eye than most. At the end of her life, she turned to the new work being done with that mysterious force, electricity, in the hopes of finding a molecular basis in the human nervous system to explain emotions. She was plagued by this time with both physical and mental disorders, and so also hoped to find some personal salvation in this quest. But her Byronic nature was getting stronger in the form of an affair and gambling addiction (there is an interesting speculation that she tried to develop a mathematical formula to beat the odds), and she finally succumbed to illness. In the end she requested to be buried next to the father she never knew in life. The Bride of Science is a wonderful portrait of the struggle between reason and passion.
--Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor