Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace)
Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace)
Image: Creative Commons

Drummond Bone

Ada's mother encouraged her interest in mathematics, partly after her own interests but partly to stop her being interested in poetry like her father, the infamous Lord Byron. The interesting thing is that Ada talks about the ‘poetry of mathematics’ – she talks about the two not being in opposition and in some ways being the same thing.

What is Ada Lovelace story – who was she and why is she remembered?
She’s known for a translation of and commentary on Babbage’s attempts to build an ‘analytic engine’ (what we’d call a modern computer).

There are 3 bits of work underneath that: firstly; she realised that computing wasn’t only about numbers (you’re reading this on a screen: case in point) – you can do other things with computers. The second thing was that she had particular views on the generation of Bernoulli numbers - quite a complex piece of mathematics. The third thing she’s famous for is asking the question ‘Could a computer ever think like a human being?’ and Alan Turing, later on, called this The Lovelace Objection, when he was doing his experiments to see whether – theoretically – you can tell when you were dealing with a computer and when you were dealing with a human being.

What are you planning to talk about at the Ada Lovelace symposium?
I’m being invited to introduce the symposium. I’ll be talking a little bit about Ada’s contribution to the ‘new science’ of computing, but also a bit about her relationship with her father and her general cultural stand.

How does Ada’s father figure in your larger research?
I’m (supposedly!) a Byronist, he was one of the people that I’ve studied and written a couple of books on – that’s where my interest starts.

Ada, of course, never knew her father – her father and mother (Annabella Milbanke) split up when Ada was very young. There is controversy about this but basically Ada’s mother then tried to keep her away from anything to do with her father and took great lengths to make sure Ada did not follow in her father’s footsteps. Annabella encouraged Ada’s interest in mathematics, partly after her own interests but partly to stop her being interested in poetry, like her father. The interesting thing is that Ada talks about the ‘poetry of mathematics’ – she talks about the two not being in opposition and in some ways being the same thing.

So Annabella’s attempts to get her daughter to disown her father didn’t really work out, because Ada had lots of qualities or failings – depending on how you want to look at it – that seem a lot like her father’s, and she ended up being buried next to him at Hucknall Parish Church.

What ‘qualities or failings’ are you thinking of?
Well, she had mood swings – and he was certainly prone to those: he could be depressive, he could be very enthusiastic. And of course she had a certain sexual track record - while nothing in the league of her father’s, notoriously she had an affair with her own tutor when she was really quite young – a teenager – which needless to say upset her mother! And then she had at least one other affair later in her life when she was married.

The positive side of this was that in many ways she was hyper-energetic and full of ideas, full of enthusiasm.

Is there any sense of quite how unusual she was at the time to be so self-assured and acting so independently?
I think so. I think some people were worried – to put it that way – about her independence and self-assertion. And sometimes that could be a bit misguided: sometimes she was perhaps over-confident, sometimes a bit over-assertive, but on the other hand that’s the other side of her getting things done! And there’s no question that she energised Babbage – exactly what her contribution was to the project is a matter of some controversy, but she was a kind of muse. They had their ups and downs, no doubt, but she was, I think, very important in Babbage’s sense of purpose. So she was very unusual: unusual certainly in being a woman in that period interested in mechanical engineering and mathematics.

Did she come up against much criticism or resistance? 
No, I don’t think so. She had the advantage of course of being her father’s daughter; even if her mother may not have wanted her to use that, it was known - and she did know that. She had a place in society. And, of course, after she’d married William King and William became the Earl of Lovelace, then she had a very considerable place in society.

What were the main differences between society then and society now?
I think the sense of social place is different now. But then in terms of sexual mores it depends; someone who like me grew up in the 1960s might not find Regency period dissimilar.

The majority of your research is on Byron; could you tell me more about your work?
I’m most often associated with Byron, but my interest is really in the formal analysis of literary texts. So when I did my thesis, it was on irony in the romantic period. Irony’s interesting from a linguistic point of view because it’s difficult to know how it’s signalled in the text.

The reason why it’s that period – the period in which Byron lived – that I was studying irony in, is because it was very fashionable in Europe at that point: not just the use of it, but the idea of it. The idea of irony was something that was destabilising: you had a form, you had a set of words, but it didn’t mean what the set of words said. There was no absolutist connection between the appearance and reality, between form and content – and the social equivalent of that is the French Revolution going on in that period. So, in studying irony, a natural period to move into was that one.  Kierkegaard, the philosopher, wrote his PhD thesis on the concept of irony and that’s only just a little bit later.

I’m simplifying this horribly, but if you think of a pre-Reformation view of the Eucharist, the wine was the blood and the bread was the body. You think of the Reformation view: the wine signified the blood and the bread signified the body. You get an ironic view and the wine could signify the blood… but it could signify something else completely different. That’s the progression of the relationship between form and content in this linguistic sense. Hegel actually said that irony was the death of art because it destabilised meaning. When you’re in an age where the whole of society is destabilised: ‘Who are you? You’re a member of the Third Estate.’ ‘No, I’m not, my identity has nothing to do with that.’ ‘Who are you? You’re a sinner under God.’ ‘No, I’m not, I don’t conceive of that as being a sin at all.’

So the destabilisation of the whole society and the destabilisation of the way language works are part and parcel of the same thing. 

How did you manage to ‘pin down’ irony?
You can’t pin down irony. I think there are various explanations for how you identify irony (particularly in modern linguistics, much more work here than when I was starting out). If you find words put together unusually – if it’s unusual for two words to be put together in the same sentence, that often triggers the brain into thinking: ‘Is there something funny going on here – is this ironic?’ So the odd collocation of words is often one of the triggers. But that depends, of course, upon people having a shared understanding of where words do or don’t often come together.

The interesting thing about Byron, and here there might be a connection with Ada, is that he could see the two sides of the ironic statement at the same time. So, he often believed what he was saying, but he also believed the ironic opposite. And that ability to hold different ideas in your head at the same time you might also see as part of Ada’s ability to think abstractly.

Clearly one of Ada’s contributions to analytic engineering was that she saw that clearly the manipulation of mathematical formula could actually be applied to things other than numbers. So, in a way, that detaching of form from content, having multiple contents under a similar form – that’s quite like her father’s use of irony.

What initially drew you to Byron?
I was attracted to Byron’s ideas that you could hold contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Byron calls this facility ‘mobility’ (well, he uses the French: mobilité) and he talks about it being susceptible to immediate impressions without losing the past. So you can have a current view, as it were, but you still know that your old view is there as well. That’s what attracted me to the study of irony, I suppose, and Byron in this period is one of the key users of irony.

How did you get to be where you are now?
I came to Oxford and studied English Literature. My first full-time academic job was at the University of Warwick in English and Comparative Literature. From Warwick I moved to the University of Glasgow; I was in an English Literature department there for many years. Then, in the early 1990s, my colleagues elected me to the position of Dean of the Arts Faculty. One thing led to another and I became what in Oxford would be a Pro-Vice-Chancellor and then I became a Vice-Chancellor. And at that point you get further and further away from your own discipline, of course! I’ve been lucky to be involved in a journal for a long while, which helps a little bit to keep me up to speed. But, since 2000, certainly I’ve been mainly on the management side of things.

What are the main functions of your current job as Master of Balliol?
I suppose fundamentally the main function is that you chair the governing body of the college. Oxford is very much a democracy, and the college will take collegiate decisions but you are leading that community and you've just got to make sure that you don't get too far ahead of the community, if I can put it that way, so you suddenly turn round and discover they're not there behind you. There’s also fundraising, of course, there’s no question about that – some of one’s time is taken up raising money for the college. 

And then, inevitably, because the college is part of the University, you’re also involved in the University administration – so I’m on and I chair a couple of University committees.

So broadly it's running the community, fundraising for that community and plugging that community into the larger University.

What gives you most job satisfaction?
Well, you ask me that at an odd moment, because I happened to be at the memorial service for one of the leading Byronists of the day, who was a former PhD student of mine, just on Saturday. Somebody asked me that question a few years ago and I said ‘maybe my PhD students’ and, having just been at Peter Cochran’s memorial, I think today that’s the answer I’d give again.

What’s next?
I’ve three more years here. I also occasionally write short fiction and I’ve had one or two bits published over the last couple of years; it’s difficult to do that obviously when you're involved in leading an institution so I’ll go back to that, I suppose.