Strange but True: The story behind ‘Ms Software'

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Q: Who was "Ms. Software," credited with writing the first computer program, and who was the "Mr. Hardware" in her life?

A: She was Ada Byron, daughter of the famous poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and later by marriage the Countess of Lovelace, says Randy Alfred, author and editor of the book "Mad Science." Though Ada never knew her "poetically wild father," this didn't stop her from becoming "an opium addict who had numerous affairs and gambled away much of the family fortune, dying at age 36."

At age 15, Countess Ada met Cambridge University math professor Charles Babbage, who was working on a "difference engine" that could do automatic mathematical calculations. After Ada translated an article about the engine, Babbage asked her to expand it and, drawing on his notes, she tripled its length, predicting that a "computing machine could compose music, draw graphics and find applications, so to speak, in business and science." She also wrote a plan for the analytical engine that is "now considered the first computer program," originating the notion of a program loop that she likened to "a snake biting its tail."

Concludes Alfred, "Later, the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer language Ada in her honor."

Q: What planet in our solar system has a day that's longer than its year?

A: The straightforward answer is Venus, second-closest planet to the Sun, with 243 Earth days needed to complete a "day" (spinning on its axis), yet only 225 Earth days to orbit the Sun and complete a "year."

But a more refined answer depends on the definition of "day." A "year," of course, is the time it takes a planet to orbit the Sun, but there are two different ways to measure a day: A "sidereal day" (as used above) is the time it takes a planet to rotate once about its axis, while a "solar day" is the time from one sunrise (or sunset) to the next. Based on this latter definition, Venus's solar day (117 Earth days) is much shorter than its year (225 Earth days). Now consider Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun: Though its sidereal day (59 Earth days) is somewhat shorter than its year (88 Earth days), its solar day (176 Earth days) is much longer. So Mercury is a second answer.

Curiously, Venus -- and also Uranus -- are the only planets that rotate about their axes in the opposite direction to their orbits, meaning on these planets, the Sun rises in the west.

Q: What's some fascinating dental history you can sink your teeth into, and how do false teeth fit in?

A: Strangely enough, it wasn't until Queen Victoria's reign in England that the dental profession started to get organized, says Molly Oldfield in "The Secret Museum." For the first time, one had to be a dentist to work on people's teeth.

"Before that, anyone who fancied it -- chemists, blacksmiths and wigmakers -- had a go. People had their teeth pulled out on the village green as everyone watched." Then in the 1870s, the Dental Reform Committee was established to regulate the profession, with dental hospitals set up to train dentists and to treat patients.

Stranger still, not long ago false teeth were "quite a status symbol," under the assumption that nothing could go wrong with them. George Washington had a set made from hippo ivory, and it was still a popular thing to do in more recent times. For example, in 1943, after selling film rights to his first children's story "The Gremlins," Roald Dahl used \$200 from the proceeds to buy the best false teeth available.

As Oldfield concludes: "Not so long ago, people who could afford it used to get false teeth for their 21st birthday, or just before they married. What a rubbish birthday present -- a mouth full of false teeth."

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