Ada Lovelace Is 199 Years Young Today

“I am more than ever now the bride of science…”


In honor of #AdaLovelaceDay, a brief round-up of some of the great recent commentary on her life and legacy:



Historians In Lab Coats: How Science Is Helping Rewrite the History Books

Last December, a group of researchers published the findings of the genetic study of a set of remains uncovered under a car park in England in 2012 believed to be the skeleton of King Richard III. Mitochondrial DNA testing confirmed a match between the skeleton and one of the king’s modern female descendants. The University of Leicester put the probability this was Richard III at, conservatively, 99.999%.

The findings were published in the science journal Nature Communications, but the work of the geneticists will keep historians busy for years. There will be inevitable disputes over the limitations of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which some have argued proves only that the remains belonged to anyone descended from Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, or his two sisters. Most tantalizingly, they found that “The Y-chromosome haplotype from Skeleton 1 does not match that of male-line relatives of Richard III.” This is referred to as a “false-paternity” event, where the genealogical record doesn’t match up with the genetic evidence.

The skeleton of Richard III.

99.999% Probability: Richard III

As the study around Skeleton 1 shows, the hard sciences are playing an increasingly visible role in historical research. The American Historical Association devoted the December issue of “Perspectives in History” to the interaction between historians and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

In a thoughtful essay, medievalist Monica H. Green looks at the how molecular biologists unraveled the mystery of the Black Death (c. 1347-53) by sequencing the bacterium collected from remains in a plague burial site in London in 2011, “an achievement that finally closed decades of debate about what “really” caused the Black Death.”

Welcoming a new player onto the field of historical research is not something we traditionally trained historians always do gracefully. But I would argue that we should embrace our new sister discipline. Despite the hype in the popular press, the molecular genetics work that has contributed so substantively to the history of plague and several other disease histories hasn’t pushed us off the playing field. It has an inherent limit: genetics tells us only the story of the pathogen. It does not tell us how, in the case of plague, a single-celled organism came to be dispersed over half the globe in the medieval period (and around the whole globe by the beginning of the 20th century). It does not tell us about all the animal species—not simply rats, but also marmots and gerbils and maybe camels and storks—that helped transmit the organism thousands of miles from its place of origin. Least of all does it tell us how people reacted to such massive devastation, or why they looked to the stars, or local minority groups, in their search for explanations or objects of blame.

Not only did these “historians in lab coats” help Green and her colleagues over a wall traditional historical records simply couldn’t breach, it opened up new fields of inquiry. Looking at the genetic history of the bacterium, she and others “have been able to put forward several robust hypotheses of our own, including how, when, and why plague emerged out of its evolutionary home in the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau in the 13th century. I have even tentatively postulated, on the basis of the genetics, that plague may have reached areas that have never been part of Black Death narratives before.”

That last bit is one of the most exciting aspects of inviting the sciences in: it gets historians thinking beyond traditional boundaries. Maybe the Black Death had an unknown history outside Europe. Maybe there was more going on in Richard III’s family tree than we knew. This reevaluation of stories that seemed to be fixed and permanent can only make better historians….and better histories.

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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Creating Change On Campus: What Can the University of Virginia’s History Teach Us?

Thomas Jefferson stood to speak.

Instead, he burst into tears.

This was October 1825, just seven months into the inaugural class at the University of Virginia. The 82-year old former president had spent years struggling to fund and build this dream. He had created the university he himself would have wanted to attend in his youth: a palace of learning unfettered by strict curriculums or religious dictates. He had expected the students who flocked to Charlottesville to be men like himself, studious young strivers and intellectuals.

cover rot riot rebellionBut the spoiled sons of Virginia’s planter elite turned out to be interested less in books than bacchanalia. Rumors were spreading across the Commonwealth that the school was “a nursery of bad principles,” drunkenness, violence, and vice. The entire seven-man faculty was ready to resign. He had no idea how to control the students or placate the faculty. So he sat in his seat in the unfinished Rotunda and cried while the entire population of the university stared on in shock.

This scene from Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos’s new study, Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America, came to mind last week while watching the school deal with the fallout of a horrifying Rolling Stone exposé of rape on campus.

While the magazine has now admitted it failed to properly investigate the specific incident at the heart of the piece, the central points of the story – that UVa takes a laissez-faire approach to investigating reports of rape on campus which fails victims and creates an unsafe environment for all students – is no less valid, and the university remains one of nearly a dozen schools under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for their handling of sexual abuse cases.
And the central question also remains: How does UVa, or any university, change their culture to make their community a safer place for their students?

Jefferson Statue and Rotunda-LThe uproar at Mr. Jefferson’s University continued for decades after his death in 1826. Students imbibed alcohol in amounts that would make the binge-drinkers of today look like teetotalers. They danced and they gambled; they fought duels with each other and they brawled with the locals; they beat the slaves that built and maintained the campus. They destroyed property on Ground and off. They kept prostitutes in their rooms on the Lawn. Every class had students that were there to learn, but the majority didn’t want to spoil their fun by attending classes. They bucked every attempt by those in charge to impose some sort of order.

There were at least a half-dozen riots in the school’s first thirty years that had to be put down by the local police or militia. Then each successive riot became anniversaries to be celebrated with more mayhem. On November 12, 1840, a group of masked students toasting the riot of 1836 confronted Professor John A. G. Davis in front of his home on the Lawn. Davis was a member of the Class of 1825 and had been elected to teach law in 1830. He had confronted unruly students before. As usual, they ran off. But then one of them turned back, and without a word, shot Davis in the stomach. He died two days later.

Not even Davis’s murder could totally change the tone. The professor’s successor did manage to implement the university’s now-sacrosanct Honor Code, designed to play on the students’ obsession with honor as a tool to regulate their behavior. It helped, but the worst excesses remained into at least the 1850s. Santos and Bowman end their narrative in 1846, the year the Virginia Legislature finally agreed , so the the some of the mystery of how UVa went from was transformed into the country’s preeminent institutions of higher learning goes unanswered. But we can, perhaps, make some educated guesses.

In the end, it was not so much a matter of the school changing its culture as it was in their creation of a framework that was ready when the outside culture changed. If the antebellum period was America’s freewheeling adolescence, the decades after the Civil War were that awkward phase of sober, adult responsibility. With billions in personal wealth blown away by the War, the sons of wealth were no longer so wealthy, and they were joined by an increasing number of young scholars who were going to have to build their own futures and their own fortunes. This new breed of student found a university that had somehow managed to hold on and build up Jefferson’s vision of a place where “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” could run wild. Over time, they had formed a system that became a model for other schools.

Will UVa be able to challenge the pervasive problem of college rape? It’s hard to say. It’s a tough issue to tackle, and there’s incentive to hunker down and wait for the story to drop out of the headlines. Still, if their early history teaches us anything, it’s that UVa can come up with fixes – sometimes innovative, sometimes desperate – for difficult situations. And they’ve learned the value of persistence.



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This work by Heather K. Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Beyond the Ripper: Murder in 1888 London [Review]

On the morning of October 1, 1888, a worker found the torso of a young woman tucked away in the corner of the construction site for the new home of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters near the Victoria Embankment; detectives soon matched the torso to severed limbs found scattered along the nearby Thames riverbank. They never managed to identify the women, a cause of death, nor the identity of her killer. New Scotland Yard was raised over the crime scene of an unsolved murder.

Normally, a dismembered body turning up in a police headquarters – even an unfinished one – would be front-page news. This unfortunate woman was instead relegated to the back pages. October 1, 1888 was the day after two prostitutes had been found murdered in Whitechapel in a single night. It was the very day the name  “Jack the Ripper” first appeared in print. (more…)

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