Happy Ada Lovelace Day

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

In planning this post, I had a strong urge to write about Ada Lovelace herself. Reading a chapter by Howard Rheingold, I marvelled at the clarity and potency of Ada’s vision for computer programming, in which ‘the mental and material […] are brought into intimate connexion with each other’. Indeed, we unite this binary every time we use computers either to translate ideas into form, or to expand our consciousness of the world around us. Amazingly, Ada wrote that 100 years before computers existed.

Then I briefly thought to celebrate Evelyn Fox Keller – for figuring out that each cell of slime mould is an agent of its own aggregational destiny – ie, that there are no commanding cells directing all the others to form into a mass, moving entity; for unearthing the dispersed history of thinking about decentralised forms of authority, which has since coalesced into the field of emergence; and for her meta-work on feminist science, which is how I first encountered her.

But the achievements of both women have been well documented. I prefer to write about someone with a smaller digital footprint, even if it means traversing into more foreign technological terrain. So here is a brief tribute to an atmospheric scientist – a climatologist – whose contribution to science is mostly mysterious to me, but whose capacities for independent, steadfast investigation and analysis are unquestionably impressive.

My Mum reckons that my younger sister, Julie, was inspired to embark on a scientific career by our step-uncle, a paleontologist, when he gave her a piece of dinosaur egg from South Australia. She won the Australian National University Medal for her Honours degree in physics, and by age 30 she had a PhD in atmospheric gaseous exchange – you can read it here. I don’t grok its scientific significance, but I know that the research involved camping in a forest in Siberia, and building metal towers to climb in order to collect air samples. That’s quite an effort.

I also know that in her work for the federal Department of Parliamentary Services, she wrote a report, Climate change: The case for action, that dissolves any excuse the Australian government might have had for failing to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It says that the climate is changing; that most of the change is due to human influences; that the changes present serious risks; that those risks can be managed; and that the longer we delay, the more drastic our mitigation measures will need to be. It’s clear! (It’s just a pity that the problem here is not purely scientific – mostly, it’s cultural. People are apparently not yet ready to accept those mitigation measures.)

As well as being scientifically inclined (and successful), she is a rockclimber, adventurer, nature photographer, mother of two, animal lover (she has three Siberian huskies and two cats) and since last month, medical student. So, I celebrate Ada Lovelace Day by celebrating my multi-talented sister, Julie Styles.

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