The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Reading challenge book 41: a graphic novel

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua

Amazon link here; link to abbreviated webcomics here.


Let me start by saying how much I completely adored this graphic novel. It’s witty; I enjoyed the art; the author conveys her love of the topic in every panel; and I never knew that footnotes and endnotes could be so entertaining. To put things in context, I may have uttered the words “I want to have sex with Sydney Padua’s brain”. (I know, ick, right?) But The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (or Thrilling Adventures) gets an A* from me.

So. Babbage and Lovelace lived in Victorian England. Charles Babbage read Maths at Cambridge, and although he was disappointed by the quality of teaching at undergrad ( O_o), he later became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He was an eminent engineer and contributed to a number of fields such as cryptography, but nowadays he’s best known as the father of modern computing. He drew up plans for the famous ‘Difference Engine’, which was designed to automatically generate series from polynomial functions, but abandoned this design before a model was ever successfully completed to begin work on his ‘Analytical Engine’, which was more complex and designed for general computing. Neither machine was ever completed.

As a side note, hubby and I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View a couple of years ago, and walked in partway through the demonstration of a recreation of the Difference Engine. Hubby was quite interested, but I had absolutely no idea about what was going on. I’m pretty sad that I missed out on viewing it with any degree of understanding!

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron, and from an early age had a keen interest in mathematics (which her family steered her towards in the hope of offsetting any Romantical Tendencies she might have inherited from her father). In Victorian times, women could not write and publish scientific papers; however Ada used a workaround to publish her translation of an account of one of Babbage’s presentations on his Analytical Engine; only she added many pages of footnotes (three times as many pages as the translated article), which included a computer program for the Engine.

While historical records claim that Ada Lovelace died shortly afterwards, Thrilling Adventures enlightens the reader to the existence of a Pocket Universe, in which Lovelace and Babbage lived on to build the Analytical Engine and fight crime. Which is the opening premise for the novel. (See an abridged version of this comic here).

Why select The Thrilling Adventures?

Basically, because I’m a giant nerd. I know a very little about Turing machines, and wanted to see how the Difference Engine fitted in. One of the Appendices to the novel includes an simplified illustration of how the Engine worked, and I found it fascinating.

Incidentally, I’ve also started playing a game called ‘Human Resources’, which teaches you basic assembly-programming (I think), which is super fun. But a lot of the concepts used in the game correlate to the design for the Analytical Engine. This excited me a lot!

What kind of crime do Lovelace and Babbage fight?

This is a little controversial. Queen Victoria is very keen that they Fight Crime, whereas Lovelace and Babbage originally planned to produce log tables, charts for navigators… But they compromise and prevent Financial Collapse! And Proof-Read Novels for Spelling Errors! And there is a fantabulous comic of Ada Lovelace reading about imaginary numbers and then having a dream about them a la Alice through the Looking Glass. 

You mentioned footnotes?

Yes! Typically there are 3-4 footnotes per page, giving the historical background to the panel. This may sound dry, but they add in any number of small, human details – for example, although Lovelace was steered towards mathematics by her family to keep her poetical tendencies in check, her tutors had serious concerns over whether her frail, female body could sustain the immense intellectual effort of doing advanced mathematics. (They also advised that she steered away from areas such as imaginary numbers, which could bring forth her hidden romantic nature!)

Sydney Padua did a huge amount of research on Babbage and Lovelace, and she references correspondence and other source materials. Extracts from a number of these are included in one of the Appendices. And she talks about the process of doing the research, and how excited she was when she made any significant discoveries – proper geeking out. Love it!

What else?

I loved the tongue-in-cheek nature of this webcomic. The relationship between Babbage and Lovelace is a little Wallace and Gromit-esque (Ada is positioned as Gromit, obviously), though in a loving, respectful way. There are a number of witty anachronisms (a shop-sign ‘Google’ with pairs of spectacles in the window; cat memes delighting Queen Victoria).

So you would recommend Thrilling Adventures?

Absolutely! To quote a friend, if you don’t enjoy this book, you’re a bad person and can’t be my friend. Even if you’ve read the webcomic, you should buy the book because a) it expands on the original webcomic (more detail and frames); b) you’ll enjoy re-reading it; c) you can lend it to all your friends and delight them too; and d) it would be smashing to give Sydney Padua some money because not only is she awesome, but doing so might encourage her to write a sequel.

I hope you enjoyed this unbiased summary which in no way resembled a squeefest.


I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that

Reading challenge book No. x – A non-fiction  book

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that, by Ben Goldacre 

Amazon link here

I’m quite a big Ben Goldacre fan. I never read his Guardian column while it was being published as I was reading The Times back then, but I really enjoyed Big Pharma (while being horrified, obviously). Some of his insights about drug testing were probably pretty obvious – for example, that it’s more useful for physicians that drugs under development are tested for effectiveness against rival drugs, rather than placebos – but were eye-opening to me as they were issues that I hadn’t really thought about before. I like to think that I have a reasonably critical mindset, but Big Pharma sharpened my focus, which can only be a good thing.

On a side-note, I vaguely remember school science having more of a fact and rule focus rather than necessarily teaching the scientific method. Maybe that’s unfair to my teachers, maybe it’s something I don’t remember because it was taught by not examined, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like the best focus to me.

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that (hence to be referred to as Complicated) is a collection of some of Ben Goldacre’s columns from the Guardian that were published over roughly five years (I think, my copy of the book is at home). In these columns he applies a critical, scientific mindset to newly-published research and articles that (badly) summarise said research. Papers which came in for significant criticism included The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Independent. (From memory, The Times wasn’t really referred to. Good for them.)

Complicated is arranged into sections by topic, which was helpful for locating articles you might find interesting, particularly for those readers adopting a ‘dipping in’ approach. The individual articles are very entertaining (yes, nerd alert sounding), but due to the original column’s nature and word limit there is repetition of the same overall theme without a deeper dive or significant continuity between topics. As such, this is probably better for dipping into than sitting down and reading cover to cover. (I did some of the latter but I don’t remember much of the detail, just the overriding concepts). A lavatory book, perhaps?

I think that this book is great for exposing people to just how bad scientific reporting can be, and I would strongly recommend it for people who tend to read the aforementioned publications and quote them verbatim. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine giving to a not-so-scientifically-inclined relative, with the hope of opening their eyes a little. One of my key take-aways is basically not to believe any science that I read in the papers. (Depressing, yes. But worth knowing).

One of my favourite columns came from 2009, and can be found here.

In a week where our dear Daily Mail ran How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer, I will exercise some self-control, and write about drugs instead. “Seven hundred British troops seized four Taliban narcotics factories containing £50m of drugs,” said the Guardian on Wednesday. “Troops recovered more than 400kg [882lb] of raw opium in one drug factory and nearly 800kg of heroin in another.” Lordy, that is good.

Spoiler, it wasn’t worth £50m. Ben Goldacre estimates the worth of the raw opium seized to the Taliban (no heroin was seized, incidentally) was actually $126k. That’s a fairly significant variance. But hey, that’s still a super blow to the forces of bad guys. Put your hands together for Team Britain!