Category Archives: On This Day

Hedy Lamarr

The four women my computers are named after

At the age of 13 I got my first computer: a custom-built gaming rig with a brand new dual core processor. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to share a computer with anybody else in my family — I could use it exactly how I wanted and, more importantly, I could give it whatever name I chose.

Naming a household appliance may seem like a cute affectation — only marginally better than giving a name to your favourite rock or comfiest underwear — but is a necessary part of networking. Without a hostname, computers cannot identify themselves to each other to share information. The principle is somewhat abstracted on the Internet, but essentially, the www in “www.tychosnose.com” is the hostname of our web server.

In honour of the grandfather of computing I named my first computer babbage, so it was only natural that my first laptop – one of those laptops for teenagers – obtained several years later, should then be called lovelace (read on if you don’t know why). After babbage’s retirement, however, all my devices have been named after pioneering women in computer science or related fields.

Babbage and Lovelace as drawn in 2D Goggles

Babbage and Lovelace as a crime-fighting duo in 2D Goggles, a comic by Sydney Padua.

The ‘middle’ Tuesday in October is now known as Ada Lovelace Day, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology. As part of the celebrations, today I would like to share the stories of four amazing women my computers are named after.

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mean-girls

It’s October 3rd: The Mathematics of Mean Girls

Mean Girls is arguably the teen movie of my generation.

I’m not sure if this counts as a valid appraisal of a film’s popular impact, but a site-specific Google search of Buzzfeed alone turns up 7,890 results for posts about the 2004 teen rom-com. If this is compared to various other bits of pop culture, we can see that the 28th highest box office film of 2004 has had a phenomenal cultural impact. It rates just behind the 6-film behemoth that is the Star Wars franchise and well ahead of its rival Clueless. Somehow, in the over-saturated high-school drama genre, Mean Girls made its mark.
october 3rd graph

If you’ve never seen the film, you’ll be wondering why I’m writing about it today. If you’ve seen the film once or twice, you may also be a little bemused. If, like me, you own multiple DVD copies because you keep one at your parents to have something to watch over Christmas, you’ll know that I’m writing this post today because on October 3rd Aaron Samuels asked Cady what day it was, and today is the tenth October 3rd since the movie’s release.

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Also if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know we like to pick up on mathematics and science in pop culture. In Mean Girls, this isn’t particularly difficult as mathematics is used as the metaphorical weather vane for Cady Heron’s descent-into and subsequent ascent-out-of superficiality.

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The Kilogram turns 125

We all know what a kilogram is, right? It’s the mass of a bag of sugar. Thank goodness for the bag of sugar. Without it we’d be forced to imagine 1/7000th of an African bull elephant or 1/14560th of a double decker bus or God only knows what fraction of the weight of Wales.

Having a clear visualisation of the kilogram is important for all sorts of reasons, not least because it’s one of the seven SI units, the fundamental alphabet of symbols which can be combined in a variety of ways to express any physical quantity. Speed, for instance, is measured in metres per second, whereas force can be expressed in terms of kilogram metres per second squared.

The kilogram was accepted into this metrological pantheon alongside the metre 125 years ago today, when the value of both units was defined at the first General Conference on Weights and Measures organised by the BIPM. As a consequence of that meeting, three identical kilograms were cast by the firm Johnson Matthey out of a mass of platinum-iridium alloy. This alloy was chosen because of its density and chemical stability, meaning that the kilograms would be both small and resistant to rust. One of the kilograms was kept at the BIPM offices in Sevres, and two were sent for safekeeping in America. Rumours that a further three were subsequently distributed to the elven-kings under the sky have no foundation in truth.

One kilo to rule them all

One kilo to rule them all

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IBM 360 Computer

Before the web: a history of internet communications

Today is “Internaut Day”, marking the 23rd anniversary of the World Wide Web’s public unveiling. While working at CERN in 1991, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented “hypertext” – virtual content with embedded links to other text – and revolutionised the way we use computers. Continue reading