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Mathematics Professor’s Research Highlighted in Scientific American

Oct 12, 2017


Adrian RiceResearch by Randolph-Macon College Mathematics Professor Adrian Rice has been highlighted in a recent article for Scientific American. The research, which was funded by the Rashkind Endowment and undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Christopher Hollings and Professor Ursula Martin of the University of Oxford, concerns the mathematics of the Victorian aristocrat Ada Lovelace.

Although most famous in her lifetime for being the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron, Lovelace is today widely regarded as "the first computer programmer." This is largely due to an 1843 paper, in which she accurately described the workings of the "Analytical Engine," a theoretical machine designed by her friend Charles Babbage, which, if it had been built, would have been the world’s first programmable computer.

However, despite Lovelace's reputation as an early pioneer of computer science, many recent historical studies have either over-exaggerated her scientific abilities or dramatically downplayed them. Some go so far as to claim that there is no way that she could have known enough mathematics to have written her famous 1843 paper.

Rice’s research with Hollings and Martin aimed to form a more accurate assessment of Lovelace’s abilities by looking at her unpublished mathematical writings, contained in a series of letters from the 1840s in which she corresponded with the nineteenth-century British mathematician Augustus De Morgan. Their findings were intriguing.

"Those who believe that Ada's achievement has been overstated base their claims on the belief that she didn’t know enough math," Rice says. "But what our research shows is that she actually did have enough mathematical knowledge—she could definitely have done it."

The research is published in two papers, in Historia Mathematica and the BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, and it is this work that is highlighted in the Scientific American article. This marks what has now come to be known as Ada Lovelace Day—the second Tuesday of every October, which celebrates not only the achievements of Ada Lovelace, but all women in science.

Adrian Rice
Adrian Rice, who joined the R-MC faculty in 1999, earned his B.S. in mathematics from University College London and his Ph.D. in the history of mathematics from Middlesex University, London. His research focuses on 19th-century and early 20th-century mathematics. His publications include Mathematics Unbound: The Evolution of an International Mathematical Research Community, 1800–1945 (edited with Karen Hunger Parshall) and The London Mathematical Society Book of Presidents, 1865–1965 (written with Susan Oakes and Alan Pears). He also edited the 2011 Oxford University Press book Mathematics in Victorian Britain (with Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson) and has published numerous journal articles.

Rice is a two-time recipient of R-MC's Thomas Branch Award for Excellence in Teaching (in 2003 and 2014). In 2013, he received the John Smith Award for Distinctive College or University Teaching from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). He also received the MAA's Carl B. Allendoerfer Award for his paper "Why Ellipses are not Elliptic Curves," which he co-authored with Professor Ezra Brown of Virginia Tech.

In 2007, he received the Trevor Evans Award for Outstanding Expository Writing from the MAA for an article he co-wrote with R-MC Mathematics Professor Eve Torrence on the mathematics of Lewis Carroll. In 2010, Rice received the Trevor Evans Award for Outstanding Expository Writing for an article entitled "Gaussian Guesswork (or Why 1.19814023473559220744... is Such a Beautiful Number)."