#citylis Student Perspectives: Ada, Ada, and the Science Museum by Adelaide Robinson

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Adelaide Robinson.


As someone with a strong background in history and literature, I have the habit of getting too attached to historical characters. (Looking at you, Thomas Cromwell. You too, Barbora Radvilaites.) Right now, it’s Ada Lovelace.

As you might have guessed from the general tone of this blog so far, science and maths have never been my forté, so mathematicians have never featured heavily in my list of Cool people. Never: except Ada. Ada Lovelace, computing visionary, has always been on that list. I went to an all-girl’s school, and in one of our computer rooms there was a banner with 10-12 pictures of maths and computing heroes, including Lovelace and Grace Hopper. The caption underneath read “but why are only two of these women?” conveniently shifting the blame to women themselves for not bothering to be prolific enough, rather than my teachers, who clearly hadn’t bothered to research women’s contributions to mathematics and computing past a quick google search. (Hello, Mary Somerville? Margaret Hamilton? Émilie du Châtelet? Katherine Johnson? Come on, guys. You were meant to be inspiring us.)

After leaving secondary school, Ada came back into my life at university. I’m lucky enough to have a membership to the London Library (a birthday/congratulations-for-getting-into-university present from my aunt) and right outside the entrance is one of those well-known blue plaques which herald a site of historical importance or interest. In this case, it’s Ada Lovelace’s home. (Let’s all take a moment to imagine living in St James’s Square. Wow.)


(A side note on our shared name: I studied in Lithuania for part of last summer, was there given the easier-to-pronounce nickname of ‘Ada’, and it stuck. It’s also a name that runs in my family. Sharing a name with Lovelace is a happy coincidence, not an affectation. Mostly.)

Now that I’ve started this master’s degree at #citylis, I’ve been eagerly reading up on the historical ‘heroes’ of library and information science. I was reminded of Ada in the course introduction after we were told about the new library and information science common room, “the Ada Lovelace Space”. I downloaded a biography of her life onto my Kindle and I’m about halfway through at the time of writing. So far, so fascinating. Did you know that Ada Lovelace was stolen away from her father (Lord Byron) by her mother at only six weeks old? Or that (like me) she suffered from chronic pain? Or that when she was thirteen, she tried to design a steam-powered mechanical flying horse? I’m trying to regulate my reading time in between studying the actual set texts of my course, but it’s just so interesting.

This morning as I was reading the chapter on Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, the book mentioned the London Science Museum. My favourite thing about London is that you can visit pretty much anywhere of interest on a whim. So, to the Science Museum I went, and found an exhibition on “Our Lives In Data”. Perfect.

‘Our Lives in Data’ talks about a lot of what we’ve already started to cover this week in #citylis; especially the issues of data analysis, privacy, and ethics. I remembered Lyn’s jokes about the “boredom algorithm” as I reached the ‘data mirror’; technology that scans your face to try and detect your age, gender, and ‘happiness level’. Vaguely scary stuff.

(Eh, not bad, though I’m 21, and the ‘happiness meter’ basically just measures how big your smile is.)

The exhibition had a few other interactive exhibits that could be ‘played’ on a personal level (something I’ve always loved about the Science Museum.) For example, another exhibit asked you to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ a series of brand names and then tried to tailor an advert selling popcorn to you based on what you had chosen. My results were analysed and I was deemed a ‘mainly curious consumer’. The ensuing advert, ‘Popcorn for the curious’ did, I admit, appeal to me.

Overall, the exhibit emphasised the issues of privacy and ethics in data. Visitors learned about a range of fields, from DNA analytics to social media, and it was a really enjoyable exhibition. Ada Lovelace was a visionary, but I’m not sure that even she could have predicted the ‘data mirror’ with its sci-fi-esque face-reading technology which is becoming so common. I would have checked out ‘the Age of Information’ exhibit afterwards (which also looked fascinating), but pain-brain was starting to kick in and I’d forgotten to bring my walking stick. Next time. (#citylis field trip, anyone?)

I left via the gift shop, noticed the print copy of the biography of Ada Lovelace I’m currently reading, and then saw this:


(Pictured: the coolest graphic novel I’ve ever seen, and this evening’s reading.)

It’s comforting to have Ada with me on this journey. If she could write her pioneering work in computing and theoretical mathematics in the 1800’s; facing misogyny, cynicism and restriction at almost every turn, I can definitely pull my socks up as a woman of the 21st century and learn about a few data structures and algorithms.

I hope my fellow #citylis students will join me in celebrating Ada Lovelace Day on October 11th. ALD celebrates the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. http://findingada.com/ has all the information you’ll need; including where to buy tickets for ‘Ada Lovelace Day Live!’, an “entertaining evening of geekery, comedy and music suitable for everyone over the age of 12.” Speakers include:

    • Yewande Akinola, design engineer focused on sustainable water supply systems and the engineering design coordination of large projects in the built environment.
    • Dr Sheila Kanani, planetary physicist, science presenter, secondary school physics teacher and space comedienne with a background in astrophysics and astronomy.
    • Dr Kat Arney, science writer and broadcaster whose work has featured in the New Scientist, Wired, the Guardian, the Times Educational Supplement, BBC Radio 4, the Naked Scientists and more.

Books referenced in this post:


You can follow Adelaide on twitter.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post – perhaps you have been on interesting library visit too – please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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