Art Everywhere, All the Time


Image courtesy of Elena Chapman. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.

I spent the past week and some change in London, my first visit there. It was, as you might imagine, an excellent trip for my flavor of nerd. So many museums! Free museums! With type specimens! So many type specimens.

I mean really. Y’all, on a whim, I visited the British Library. In their “treasures room,” I saw—in no particular order—the notated manuscript draft for Jane Eyre, a Gutenberg Bible, Austen’s hand-written draft of Persuasion, a letter by Darwin, a hand-written Sylvia Plath poem, and two (two!) of the original copies of the Magna Carta. This was in a single room, and doesn’t even include the section of books that were included just as art objects (they were, as you might imagine, covered in gilt and beautiful). In the room downstairs, I got to see one of Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman scripts.

I wandered into the Natural History Museum and saw mounts of Darwin’s pigeons and the type specimen for archaeopteryx. (That building, by the way, has dinosaurs and monkeys and beetles carved into the walls.) Halfway down the block I popped in the science museum and, after seeing a display of the sculpture that James Watt apparently took up after inventing steam engines, wandered upstairs, where I promptly lost my shit in front of Babbage’s reconstructed difference engine.

(Such a nerd am I that not only was I aware of Babbage’s part of things, but I had actually read a book about building that particular reconstruction of the difference engine, written by one of the people who spearheaded the project. Did you know that Babbage intentionally put half of the parts backwards in his plans, to confuse would-be copyright infringers?)

Continue reading

Historical Soap Operas

Babbage's difference engine.Image courtesy of Larry Johnson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

My mother’s memorial service was this past Saturday. That is not what this blog entry is about.

Instead, I want to talk about what I’ve been reading lately. It’s a biography of Ada Lovelace with the delightful title, Bride of Science.

Ada Lovelace, for those of you who spent high school not learning about the history of science, is widely considered to be the first computer programmer in history. She worked out proto-programs for Charles Babbage‘s difference engine, which–for those of you not familiar with it–is what happens when steam punk enthusiasts build a computer. Babbage was never able to build the entire thing, though he was eventually vindicated in 1991 when some English historians built one with the advantage of modern mold casting for the parts (covered in this biography, which I read last year, and which is interesting for that alone).

As the biography points out, in her own day, Ada Lovelace was far more famous for her parentage. She was the daughter of the poet Byron, the rockstar of his day, and her parents’ separation proceedings were the basis for some of the beginnings of what looks–to the modern reader–very much like modern celebrity culture.

I picked the biography partially because I enjoy reading about scientists, particularly women scientists. More than that, though, I have a deep and abiding love for science biographies from right around the time period where Ada Lovelace lived. Because there was So Much Science happening at that time, and scientific circles were confined to a series of fairly related genteel families, there are plenty of fascinating people about whom one can read. And–the part that’s fun for me–they show up in each other’s stories. Continue reading