Book review: Passion For Science

Fittingly, I'm sitting down to write this review while Google celebrates the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper - one of the first computer programmers, and - reputedly - the first person to debug a computer (by removing a moth from a vacuum tube).

She wasn't the first computer programmer, though; she missed that boat by almost exactly a century; in a translation of a paper by General Menabrea published in 1842, Lovelace appended an illustration of how Babbage's Analytical Engine could be used to calculate the Bernoulli numbers: a table, Note G, that looks for all the world like a program. Which is exactly what it is.

Her tutor - Augustus De Morgan1, a top-notch logician, lamented that Lovelace could have been "an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence", if only she'd been a man.

Sigh.

Attitudes - thankfully - have changed greatly since then, although women are still badly under-represented in the sciences (and elsewhere), and there's still a perception in some schools that science is mainly for boys.

Ada Lovelace Day is part of the movement to change that attitude, and raise the profile of women in STEM research. Every year in mid-October, writers are encouraged to tell the story of an inspiring female scientist; this year, some of the best articles have been compiled into an e-book (which is part of the fund-raising drive for next year).

I consider myself a pretty right-on sort of chap. I make an effort, not always successful, to look out quotes from female scientists for the Quotable Maths series. I like to think I have a pretty good knowledge of who's who in science. However, I'm ashamed to confess that many of the subjects of the chapters were new to me - I'd heard of Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, although I'd have struggled to get their names right; of course I knew of Lovelace and Joan Feynman. But Williamina Fleming, who discovered the Horsehead Nebula? No. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin? I think she might be in n Mathematical Quotations, but I'd not have been able to guess her field (astronomy).

Passion For Science - Stories of Discovery and Invention gives brief biographies of all of these amazing women, and more. From Eugenie Clark (the Shark Lady) to Chien-Shung Wu (like Jocelyn Bell, passed over for a Nobel Prize in favour of her male colleagues), the book is full of stories of achievement against the odds, of brilliance and perseverance, of frustration and success.

Stories, in short, of science.

I feel Passion For Science - like, to make a horrid comparison, E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics - is a book to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover; it is a collection of articles written independently rather than a book with a continuous story thread. That said, it's well worth dipping into!

I think this book is ideal for teachers who want to find scientific role-models (who happen to be female) for their students, beyond Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale, and possibly for students who mistakenly think 'girls can't do science.'

Passion For Science contains some excellent counterexamples to that hypothesis.

* The Passion For Science e-book is on general sale from FindingAda.com for £5.99. If you use the checkout code 'FlyingColours', you'll receive a 25% discount2.

* Disclosure: I received a review copy of Passion for Science.

* Next year (2014), Ada Lovelace Day is October 14th. Find out more at FindingAda.com

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. De Morgan's Laws, of course, were first written down by William of Ochkam []
  2. This is not an affiliate push; I don't - and would choose not to - benefit financially from this project. []

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2 comments on “Book review: Passion For Science

  • Thony C

    Having to repeat this is getting very boring. Ada Lovelace was not the first computer programmer. Babbage had already written sample programmes for The Analytical Engine, which he described in his Turin lecture and which are in turn described by Menabrea (who wasn’t a General but a Captain when he wrote his essay) in his essay on the Analytical engine.
    Also it is highly disputed just how much of Note G is from Babbage and how much from Lovelace.

    • Colin

      I’m sorry you’re ‘having’ to repeat it; it’s always a bind to type things that bore you under duress.

      The essay in the book on Lovelace deals – if I recall correctly – with those objections; perhaps you can debate them with the authors of the book on their blog rather than here.

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