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“Wikithon” Honors Ada Lovelace and Other Women in Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Stylized portrait of Ada Lovelace, based on a watercolor by Alfred Edward Chalon

A Wikipedia edit-a-thon seems like a fitting tribute to the woman many consider to be the first computer programmer. October 16 is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual observation designed to raise awareness of the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Groups in the U.S., U.K., Sweden and India are marking the occasion by creating and improving upon the Wikipedia pages of prominent women in STEM fields.

Born in 1815 in England, Ada Lovelace was a mathematician who became interested in computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine.” This machine, which was never actually built, would have been the first Turing-complete computer, meaning it would have been capable performing of the same computations as modern computers, albeit not necessarily quickly. In notes about the analytical engine, Lovelace wrote an algorithm to make the machine compute Bernoulli numbers, an important sequence in number theory. Although it was never executed, her creation is considered by some to be the first computer program. She died of uterine cancer when she was only 36.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out this cute cartoon video about Lovelace’s life, created by BrainPOP.


Science writer Maia Weinstock is the organizer of the U.S. Ada Lovelace Day edit-a-thon. She helped compile a list of scientists who should have Wikipedia pages or whose pages need cleaning up. “Some people might prefer to work on pages about more well-known scientists: Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Elizabeth Blackwell or even Ada Lovelace herself,” she says. For those pages, relatively simple tasks such as double-checking references are helpful.

On the other hand, she says, “some people would rather add women who aren’t even on Wikipedia at all.” As an example, she mentions Catherine Wolf, a psychologist and artificial intelligence researcher who has been living with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, since the late 1990s. She has done significant research on Lou Gehrig’s disease since being diagnosed, even though at this point her motion is limited to the use of her eyebrows. “She’s an amazing scientist, and nobody knows about her,” Weinstock says.

For people who haven’t edited Wikipedia before, the organizers will be giving short demonstrations of how to start editing the online encyclopedia.

Everyone is invited to pitch in for the Wikithon, but Weinstock says that a secondary goal of the project is to encourage more women to edit Wikipedia. Only about 10 to 15 percent of regular contributors to Wikipedia are women. “The fact that women aren’t contributing is significant.” It’s rather odd, she says, considering the many women editors at science magazines and websites.

If you want to get involved in the Wikithon, visit the event’s Wikipedia page to find out more. Boston dwellers can join the event in person, but the organizers do request an RSVP. If you’re participating remotely, just edit articles about women scientists and add your contributions to the “results” section of the page.

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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