By Joe Ferguson
There is no war between poetry and science because few people see any connection between the two pursuits. It was not always that way.
In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson argue that “Plato viewed poetry with suspicion and banned it from his utopian Republic because it gives no truth of its own, stirs up the emotions, and thereby blinds mankind to the real truth.” Aristotle disagreed and wrote, “It is a great thing, indeed, to make proper use of the poetic forms…but the greatest thing by far is to be a master of the metaphor.”
Plato eventually won the ideological war. The rise of technological power during the Industrial Revolution was based on empirical methods, scientific truths, and reason. Those attributes deemed less important to the industrial drive—intuition, emotion, and the imagination—were marginalized in academic and economic institutions. Not everyone agreed with the headlong dive into empiricism and industrialization. An almost forgotten voice from those formative years argued for a humane approach to scientific and technological progress. This voice was Ada Lovelace, and her story is the subject of Ada and the Memory Engine, a new play written by Lauren Gunderson and performed by Bay Area theater group Central Works.
Ada Lovelace was the daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, who abandoned her and her mother a month after Ada was born. He had become disillusioned with England’s industrial and technological aims—leading to his famous Frame Breakers speech in defense of the Luddites—and left to fight for the War of Independence in Greece. He died there eight years later.
Ada's mother—an accomplished mathematician—encouraged her daughter in mathematics in an effort to prevent her from developing, what she deemed, her father’s insanity.
As a teenager, Ada’s prodigious mathematical talents led her to a working relationship with mathematician Charles Babbage, who had created what he called the Analytical Engine—the prototype for the modern computer. Ada translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on the engine, which she supplemented with an elaborate set of notes. The notes contained what many consider to be the first computer program. She envisioned a future where computers would go beyond mere number-crunching and bridge the worlds of art and science. She called her approach poetical science.
Central Works describes the play as Jane Austen meets Steve Jobs. In it, we see Ada Byron who finds herself falling in love with the brilliant—though emotionally distracted—Charles Babbage. Ada’s mother, on the other hand, is preparing Ada for an arranged marriage to Lord Lovelace—a man who lacks Ada’s intellectual strength, and prefers a dutiful wife who can provide him with children. Ada eventually yields to her mother’s prodding and marries Lovelace.
The play ends with a musical number. Ada, who is dying of cancer at the premature age of 37, has a dreamlike vision of the binaries of zero and one. She is joined in the dream by someone seeming her father and they talk about how life is full of binary realities and contradictions.
Though occasionally succumbing to Masterpiece kitsch, Ada and the Memory Engine is an engaging work that shines light on an important historical figure, whose internal struggle to unite art and science is particularly relevant to our times. Gunderson cleverly underscores her play with binary characterizations—a plot device used to create tension between characters. Her work is aptly supported by a cast of strong performers, particularly Kathryn Zdan, who played Ada.
A clip from the performance can be view here.
It is no trivial thing that your ability to read this post is, in part, made possible by the pioneering mathematical work of Ada Lovelace. When Ada says, “between zero and one lies a universe,” we sense the tension of her poetical science--she saw a world of infinite possibilities in a technology based on a binary model. Through fairly recent discoveries in cognitive science, we understand that much of what we perceive as logic and reason occurs subconsciously and is undergirded by a conceptual system based in metaphor. It is only now, with that greater understanding, that we can appreciate Ada Lovelace’s foresight.