Distinguished Lecture Series 2017: Professor Ursula Martin

On October 10th, we were delighted to welcome back Professor Ursula Martin from the University of Oxford, to deliver the semester one distinguished lecture series in the Byre Theatre. Earlier in her career Prof Martin was professor of Computer Science here, and in fact only the second female professor in the history of the University of St Andrews.

The lectures covered numerous aspects of the history of computing. A particular highlight was to hear about Ada Lovelace’s early work, on Ada Lovelace day. As a trained mathematician and computer scientist who has studied her papers in detail, Ursula has discovered new insights about Ada’s education and work with Charles Babbage. She also focussed on aspects of computing history that are often ignored, such as history of computing in countries other than the USA or UK. Another aspect was how, even today, the contribution of women in history is often ignored, which Ursula herself has been able to correct in some cases.

The well received lectures centred around what every computer scientist should know about computer history. Professor Martin is pictured at various stages throughout the lectures and with Head of School, Prof Simon Dobson, DLS Coordinator, Prof Ian Gent and Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sally Mapstone. Read more about Professor Martin and the individual lectures in what every computer scientist should know about computer history. Recordings of each lecture can be viewed at the end of this post.

Images courtesy of Ryo Yanagida.

Lecture 1- The Early History of Computing: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the early history of programming.

Lecture 2 – Case Study, Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, and the history of programming.

Lecture 3- What do historians of computing do, and why is it important for computer scientists today.

DLS: What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Computer History

Event details

  • When: 10th October 2017 09:30 - 16:00
  • Where: Byre Theatre
  • Series: Distinguished Lectures Series
  • Format: Distinguished lecture

What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Computer History

Prof Ursula Martin

Update: Lectures will be live streamed at this link.

Distinguished Lecture Series, Semester 1, 2017-18

Biography:

Professor Ursula Martin CBE FREng FRSE joined the University of Oxford as Professor of Computer Science in 2014, and is a member of the Mathematical Institute.  She holds an EPSRC Established Career Fellowship, and a Senior Research Fellowship at Wadham College. Her research, initially in algebra, logic and the use of computers to create mathematical proofs, now focuses on wider social and cultural approaches to understanding the success and impact of current and historical computer science research.

Prof Ursula Martin

Prof Ursula Martin

Before joining Oxford she worked at  Queen Mary University of London, where she was Vice-Principal for Science and Engineering (2005-2009), and Director of the impactQM project (2009-2012), an innovative knowledge transfer initiative. She serves on numerous international committees, including the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee and the UK Defence Science Advisory Council.  She worked  at the University of St Andrews from 1992 – 2002, as only its second female professor, and its first in over 50 years. She holds an MA in Mathematics from Cambridge, and a PhD in Mathematics from Warwick.

Timetable:

9.30 Introduction

9.35 Lecture 1:  The early history of computing: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and the history of programming

10.35 Break with Refreshments Provided

11.15 Lecture 2: Case study, Alan Turing,  Grace Hopper, and the history of getting things right

12.15 Lunch (not provided)

2.30 Welcome by the Principal, Prof Sally Mapstone

2.35 Lecture 3: What do historians of computing do, and why is it  important for computer scientists today

3.30 Close

Lecture 1. The early history of computing: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and the history of programming

IN 1843 Ada Lovelace published a remarkable paper in which she explained  Charles Babbage’s designs for his Analytical Engine. Had it been built, it would have had in principle the same capabilities  as a modern general purpose computer. Lovelace’s paper is famous for its insights into more general questions, as well as for its detailed account of how the machine performed its calculations – illustrated with a large table which is often called, incorrectly, the “first programme”.   I’ll talk about the wider context; why people were interested in computing engines; and some of the other work that was going on at the time, for example Babbage’s remarkable hardware description language. I’ll  look at different explanations for why Babbage’s ideas did not take off, and give a quick overview of what did happen over the next 100 years, before  the invention of the first digital computers.

Lecture 2. Case study, Alan Turing,  Grace Hopper, and the history of getting things right

Getting software right was a theme of programming for the days of Babbage onwards. I’ll look at the work of pioneers Alan Turing and Grace Hopper, and talk about the long interaction of computer science with logic, which has led to better programming languages, new ways to prove programmes correct, and sophisticated mathematical theories of importance in their own right.  I’ll look at the history of the age-old debate about whether computer science needs mathematics to explain its main ideas, or whether practical skills, building things and making things simple for the user are more important.

Lecture 3: What do historians of computing do, and why is it  important for computer scientists today

When people think about computer science, they think about ideas and technologies that are transforming the future – smaller faster smarter connected devices, powered by, AI, and big data – and looking at the past can be seen as a bit of a waste of time. In this lecture I’ll look at what historians do and why it is important; how we get history wrong; and in particular often miss the contribution of of women.  I’ll illustrate my talk with  my own work on Ada Lovelace’s papers, to show how  detailed historical work is needed to debunk popular myths – it is often claimed that Lovelace’s talent was  “poetical science” rather than maths, but I’ve shown that she was a gifted perceptive and knowledgeable mathematician. I’ll explain how the historian’s techniques of getting it right can help us get to grip with  topical problems like “Fake news”, and give us new ways of thinking about the future.