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Ada Lovelace Day Live! at the Royal Institution

17th October 2014
By Katy Alexander

Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, originally founded by Suw Charman-Anderson.

“ALD started in 2009 as a simple day of blogging about women in tech and since then it has grown into an established date in the calendar. Each year we see dozens of independent local events organised by people who are passionate about the same thing we are: celebrating the achievements of women in STEM.” – Suw Charman-Anderson

As part of the day’s celebrations the Royal Institution hosted Ada Lovelace Day Live! in their famous Faraday Theatre, an event for which Digital Science was a proud sponsor. As a representative of one of the sponsors, I was lucky enough to be given a ‘VIP’ ticket to the event. This granted me a pre-event tour of the Royal Institution, given by Frank James, Head of Collections & Heritage and Professor of History of Science at UCL. I’d never been to the Royal Institution before so I felt honoured to be getting behind-the-scenes access on my very first visit!


Frank took us to the archival reading room, where we were lucky enough to be shown hand-written letters sent by Ada Lovelace to Michael Faraday and an original portrait of Ada Lovelace. It was quite inspiring to see these historical artefacts up close and the experience really brought Ada’s incredible achievements to life. We were also allowed a quick peek into the Royal Institution’s archival “vault”. One of the first boxes I saw on the shelves was labelled “Michael Faraday’s notebooks” which was a pretty cool thing for a physics nerd like myself to see. After a quick tour of some of the other Royal Institution exhibits, including the original experimental apparatus with which Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, we made our way to the Faraday Theatre for an evening of “science cabaret”, hosted by the brilliant Helen Arney.

The first quick-fire session was by Dr Hannah Fry, from UCL, titled ‘Can maths predict the future?’ The talk was a brilliant demonstration of the power of maths for analysing underlying patterns and making predictions. Whether it’s using data from OKCupid to predict the success of relationships, or analysing ‘repeat victimisation’ patterns in the distribution and frequency of burglaries (something which led to an iPad app for police forces), it’s maths which provides the insights. Hannah introduced us to Benford’s Law, which is a particularly fascinating example of a surprising pattern, hidden in data and revealed by maths.


Next up we had Konnie Huq, who shared some entertaining anecdotes from her career path and also gave us her perspective, inspired by Ada Lovelace, on the links between STEM subjects and the arts. To top it all off, she wrapped up proceedings (pun alert) with a dramatic reading of a technology-inspired rap.

Roma Agrawal gave a fascinating talk explaining the work that goes into making sure that bridges and skyscrapers don’t fall down. Using her jelly baby bridge, Roma demonstrated, in simple terms, how the phenomenon of resonance represents a real challenge for structural engineers. Footage of the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse in 1940 really hammered home the point. Structural engineers are people we trust our lives with everyday so it’s pretty important that they know their physics! Roma also shared her thoughts on being a female engineer and the reasons why she finds it so rewarding as a job. In her own words, “Women make fantastic engineers and it’s better for everyone if we get more girls studying maths and physics and on their way to becoming engineers.”

Following Roma was Steph Troeth, who gave a really interesting talk on user experience, design and ergonomics. I had never appreciated the close parallels between good science and good design before hearing Steph’s talk. Her discussion of the iPhone 6 “bendgate” brought up some interesting questions, for example, how do you get proper data about how people actually use products, rather than just how they say they use them or how you think they use them.

Caro C presented the first of the evening’s musical performances. She performed part of her ‘Audient, my dear’ piece, which was originally composed as part of Delia Derbyshire Day. Delia Derbyshire was an early pioneer in the history of electronic music, best known for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the Dr Who theme music.

The next speaker was Dr Turi King, who spoke about her involvement in the University of Leicester’s Greyfriars project (aka the exhumation of Richard III!) It was fascinating to hear about the different stages of inquiry, archaeological, historical, genetic and chemical, which all led to the discovery and the identification of Richard III. It’s pretty hard to imagine how the team must have felt when they realised what they’d found, given that they had almost zero expectation of actually finding him!

The second of the evening’s two musical performances came from Naomi Kashiwagi, who recently wrote a post on our new guest blog about her work. Naomi’s piece, Gramophonica (Lovelace remix), was inspired by both Ada Lovelace’s quote, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns as the loom weaves flowers and leaves”. Naomi used tape to create different patterns on vinyl records; when they were played these altered records produced strange but familiar sounds, a sort of mechanical version of modern sampling techniques.


Finishing off the evening was Dr Helen Czerski from UCL. Helen taught us that scorpions are fluorescent and that the physics that explains this phenomenon is the same as the physics that explains many other things, for example, how whitening washing powder works. Her key message was that we must’t forget that all our impressive technology, our smartphones and our computers, they all work because we have understood the relevant physics. It sounds obvious but WiFi is not magic, it’s physics!

The evening was a lot of fun and it was a fantastic showcase of the huge range of interesting and impressive things that women are doing in STEM subjects and the arts. Hurray for Ada Lovelace Day!

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