Issue No. 47

February 2015

Poetic Science

 

What happens when you bring together the one of the most famous romantic poet and the "Princess of Parallelograms"? Of course, you get the world's first computer programmer, who just happened to be a Lady of the British Court.

It was out of a short marriage between Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke that Ada Byron was born in December 1815. A few months after she was born, Lord Byron and Annabella divorced and he left England forever. Annabella, angry and saddened by her loss became determined that her daughter would not be raised with any semblance of art or creativity and that she would be a student of science and reason.

Ada Byron followed her mother's directives and became a devoted student of mathematics. At the age of 12 she had a flight of fancy, and decided to apply her analytical understanding to determining how she could learn to fly. She approached the problem analytically studying birds and playing with various

materials such as feathers that might help her make that leap. She recorded her finding in her "Flyology" log but was never able to accomplish that dream as her mother did not like this "practical" application of her scientific approach.

Her tutors and friends of her mother's saw a depth of understanding that led them to believe she would become a first rate mathematician. As often happens when a person begins to master a field of study, she began to see the connection between her science and the larger world. She soon saw that even though her math formulas led to logical conclusions, art and intuition played an essential role in her understandings and that there was an "unseen world around us" that provided many of our insights and understandings. Soon she began to see the connection between science and art.

When Ada Byron was 17 years old and making her debut at the British Court she met Charles Baggage, a British polymath who spoke with her about a new machine that he had invented called the "Difference Machine". His device was a series of numbered wheels that could make mathematical calculations by the turn of a handle. Babbage invited her to his home and showed her his incomplete prototype that led to a 20-year personal and professional relationship that would lead to the world's first computer software program.

Several years later Babbage was designing a more sophisticated and bigger version of his computing machine that he called the "Analytical Engine". This machine was expected to conduct more complex calculations. He spoke about his ideas at a conference in Turin where he hoped to gain some financial assistance for the building of the machine. After his paper was published, Ada agreed to translate his 8000-word text that was in French into English. It took her over a year, in large part because she added her own "Notes" and observations and more that tripled the length of the article to over 20,000 words.

In her commentary she made a series of important contributions including the recognition that the machine could go beyond an ability to calculate numbers and could be programmed to solve problems of various complexity. She included an algorithm for the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers, which are a complex set of mathematical formulas. Her algorithm for these calculations were documented in her notes and years later when researchers applied her ideas to the problem, they determined that her approach would indeed yield the results that she developed. Ada Byron Lovelace (her married name) had written the world's first computer software program.

Ada recognized that Babbage's machine could go beyond its simple ability to calculate and could instead lead to a greater and perhaps artistic view of the world. She wrote:

"This science constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world, and those unceasing changes of mutual relationship which, visibly or invisibly, consciously or unconsciously to our immediate physical perceptions, are interminably going on in the agencies of the creation we live amidst."

Ada died of cancer at the age of 36 leaving too many missed opportunities for more scientific breakthroughs. At the time of her death, she chose to be interred by the grave of her father, suggesting that despite her lifetime of the study of science, she wanted to be close to the artist side of her family.

It took over 100 years before Ada Byron Lovelace's work was recognized when her "Notes" were republished in 1952. Her efforts, however, have not gone unnoticed in today's modern computer age. In the late 1970's the US Department of Defense named one of its first

computer languages "Ada". Since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated across the globe recognizing the achievements of women in science, technology and mathematics. It is designed to encourage young women to pursue a career in these fields.

There is much to be gleaned from Ada Lovelace's career. It's probably a bit easier being a woman mathematician or scientist today than it was in her time. Understanding your ideas and presenting them in a manner that moves the needle forward is important as well. To me, however, her story bridges the connection between the science of the universe and the beauty of the universe. Make no mistake, Ada Byron Lovelace was a scientist but her father's genetic gift of poetry helped her build a bridge of understanding about how science and technology is purely designed to bring more art and beauty into the world.

 

 

Phil Hanson is an artist whose obsession with pointillism left him disabled with a nervous shake that left him fearing for his career. His physician suggested he "embrace the shake" and that led to a shift in his art that expanded his limitations to create new forms of art. Watch him here.

 

Don't Call Them Soft Skills. They Are The Essential Skills

 

I was in a meeting with a CEO who wanted me to coach someone on his team. "He's got to improve his soft skills. He's great with numbers but is not good with people," he told me. I asked him how his lack of soft skills played out in the workplace and he told me that he had lost a couple of direct reports over the past year due to his poor people skills. I asked if these soft skills were of vital importance to his job? The CEO rolled his eyes and told me unequivocally they were. I told him that is why I don't call them soft skills but instead refer to them as The Essential Skills.

I understand what he was saying. He was contrasting skills like spreadsheet manipulation, computer programming and financial analytics, with communicating with peers, listening and influencing others. Of course, the latter are considered hard because there is (usually) a right and wrong answer and there are definite formulas that can be followed to arrive at the correct answer. The so-called soft skills have more room for interpretation and provide more options for solving a problem.

I've always suspected however that there is more to the use of these terms, particularly by the people more attuned to the hard skills, which creates a general sense of devaluing people skills. By referring to them as "soft" skills the implication is that they are not that important as the more mathematical or scientific skills and that everyone and anyone can learn to develop these soft skills.

What we've seen over the past decade and not just in the knowledge economy but also in the manufacturing economy is that employees demand to be treated with respect and dignity, not just for their labor capability but also for their wisdom capability. Today's workers want to be involved in what they are doing in their job. They want to find meaning and purpose and in order to accomplish that objective; the workplace needs to support excellent communication and people skills.

Another reason why they are called "soft" may also be due to the fact that people are not always able to describe them adequately. Some are easy like listening and caring about direct reports. Others are more difficult like managing conflict and demonstrating integrity. Like any other set of skills all of the Essential skills require intentional practice. While some people may have better social skills than other people, developing a discipline to practice your improvement of these skills is just as challenging and maybe even more challenging than learning to read that spreadsheet.

The essential skills. They are really the critical ones for success.