BookTalk: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

By Sharon Kane

lovelace-and-babbageI have previously written two posts about Ada Lovelace (on May 19, 2016, I wrote about Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine as well as Ada’s Algorithm; I also discussed her as part of Historical Heartthrobs on September 14).   After I read these various biographies and explored websites related to her, and after I learned about planned activities to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 11, I wanted more. Evidently, so did Sydney Padua, who did something about it. She wrote and illustrated The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (2015, Pantheon Books). Told in graphic-novel form, the captions and pictures are full of information about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, their work, families, contemporaries, and Victorian society; adding to the work are copious footnotes, annotations, and end notes. On page 19, readers see a drawing representing one of Babbage’s famous parties, including guests Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the mathematician Mary Somerville; the Duke of Wellington; Caroline and John Herschel; Michael Faraday; Charles Darwin; Charles Dickens; Florence Nightingale, and more. We can assume the conversations were lively indeed. The first chapter ends on page 29 with the reporting of Ada’s death at age 36 and Charles’s death at age 79, and the reminder that the first computers were not built until the 1940s. What’s left to be told in the next several hundred pages of this book?

I only had to turn the page to find out: “But wait! That ending to the story of Lovelace and Babbage is only ONE of the infinite array of possible outcomes, occurring on the more boring worlds that are part of THE MULTIVERSE!” The author then takes us along on awesome adventures, complete with explanations of some of the math, science, and history being alluded to. I especially enjoyed the segment of Ada in an Alice-in-Wonderland-type situation.

I cannot adequately convey the facial expressions, the cleverness, the sheer fun of this book. I’ll tell you that I learned from the book jacket that Sydney Padua is “an animator and visual effects artist, usually employed in making giant monsters appear to be attacking people for the movies.” That explains a lot. I love this unique book, and I believe Ada and Charles would approve of how they are portrayed throughout.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! I hope you’ll join others around the world every second Tuesday in October to celebrate women in the STEM fields and encourage young women to explore rewarding career options relating to math and science.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

math, science, computer programming, ELA, history, art

BookTalk: Books About Fibonacci and His Numbers

By Sharon Kane

fibonacciNumbers fascinated Italian mathematician Fibonacci. He probably would have liked 2010; that year saw the publication of three intriguing picture books featuring the number sequence named for him (in 2016, the books are worth revisiting). I think I would first share with students Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature, by Sarah C. Campbell (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press). The short, simple text on each page instructs readers to count the petals on various flowers. (Photographs are by the author and Richard P. Campbell.) The pattern is noted, as is the rule “in order to get the next number, you add the two numbers before it” (p. 13). Later pages contain a bit more text, explaining how the principle applies to spirals in nature. Pine cones, sunflowers, pineapples, and snails are pictured in vivid color.

After students have had time to appreciate the mathematical and visual beauty they encounter in nature, I’d offer them Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnese (New York: Henry Holt and Company. Illustrated by John O’Brien). The author fictionalizes some details of Fibonacci’s youth and his relationships with family and friends, since little is known about the mathematician. Readers become involved in the solution to a riddle about rabbit reproduction and discover, along with Fibonacci, that “These are the numbers Mother Nature uses to order the universe” (p. 36). On the last page the author invites readers to go beyond the pages of the book, offering clues as to where to look for more Fibonacci number patterns in nature.

rabbit-problemBoth books speak of a mathematical rabbit problem Fibonacci posed more than 800 years ago. So, head next to Emily Gravett’s picture book/calendar The Rabbit Problem (Simon & Schuster). You’ll see what happens when two rabbits fall in love in Fibonacci’s Field and must stay there for a year with their growing family. A delightful surprise occurs in December, when they are allowed out and the population of the field changes from 144 pairs to 0.

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

math, ELA, art, science

Book Talk: Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems

by Sharon Kane

visions-of-infinityIf you hear a student complain that a math problem is taking too long to solve, you can encourage her with this sentence from Ian Stewart’s Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems (2013, Basic Books): “Fermat’s last theorem was an enigma for 350 years until Andrew Wiles dispatched it after seven years of toil” (ix). If someone asks what math has to do with life outside of school, or if this person thinks math is something static and unchanging, you can quote Stewart again: “At a rough estimate, the world’s research mathematicians number about a hundred thousand, and they produce more than two million pages of new mathematics every year (pp. ix–x).” And if students think math is done in solitude, or that it’s not important to show their work, you can offer this gem of a metaphor:

One recent piece of algebra, carried out by a team of some 25 mathematicians, was described as “a calculation the size of Manhattan.” That wasn’t quite true, but it erred on the side of conservatism. The answer was the size of Manhattan; the calculation was a lot bigger. (p. x)

I got all this from just the Preface, so you can imagine the richness of the material in the rest of the book as it describes the great mathematical problems. Ian Stewart is a mathematical storyteller, or a storytelling mathematician. (You can see a BookTalk on Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries previously posted on this site.) In his final chapter, he offers twelve unsolved problems that mathematicians are working on, with intriguing names like “Odd Perfect Numbers,” “Lonely Runner Conjecture,” “Langton’s Ant,” and “Existence of Perfect Cuboids.” Who can resist?

I will never be famous for solving a math problem, but if I have Visions of Infinity in my classroom library maybe one of my students will be. I’ll end this BookTalk with another quote that I could offer to a student who thinks mathematics is boring or dry; notice how Stewart uses imagery to invite readers into his world:

Mathematics… is… like a natural landscape, where you can never really say where the valley ends and the foothills begin, where the forest merges into woodland, scrub, and grassy plains, where lakes insert regions of water into every other kind of terrain, where rivers link the snow-clad slopes of the mountains to the distant, low-lying oceans. But this ever-changing mathematical landscape consists not of rocks, water, and plants, but of ideas; it is tied together not by geography, but by logic. And it is a dynamic landscape, which changes as new ideas and methods are discovered or invented … Over time, some of the peaks and obstacles acquire iconic status. These are the great problems. (pp. 7–8)

Appropriate for high school

math, ELA


BookTalk: Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries

By Sharon Kane

casebook-of-mathematical-mysteriesSome of your students might like reading mysteries. Some might like literary allusions and parodies. Others might be fans of Sherlock Holmes, delighting in the original stories and/or recent adaptations in print and film. A wonderful addition to your classroom library—of interest to all these students—would be Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries (2014, Basic Books), by mathematician Ian Stewart. Readers are introduced to Soames and Dr. Watsup, who live in Victorian England, across the street from a famous detective pair, and take on cases that require mathematical solutions. The book contains enough puzzles to carry a teacher through an entire school year. Students will race to enter the classroom to see the title of their next case. Will it be “The Riddle of the Golden Rhombus”? “The Puzzle of the Purloined Papers”? “Jigsaw Paradox”? “The Soup Plate Trick”? If they have ever wondered about the shape of an orange peel or the history of Sudoku, how to measure the height of a tree, why birthdays are good for you, or how to win the lottery, they should join Soames and Dr. Watsup as they share data, conjectures, figures, formulas, hypotheses, evidence, and epiphanies. There will be laughter, along with some groans, along the way. In the spirit of this book, students can create their own problems and scenarios for classmates and teachers to solve.

Now for our problem: Where should this book be most appropriately housed? In the English classroom? Math classroom? Somewhere else? Collaborate with your colleagues to come up with a solution based on mathematical input and principles. Maybe division will be required. Students could encounter “Fermat’s Last Limerick” and “Mathematical Haiku” in English/language arts; “How to Stop Unwanted Echoes” in physics; “Bargain with the Devil” in philosophy; “The Adventure of the Rowing Men” and “The Hound of the Basketballs” in physical education; “Square Leftovers” in Home and Careers; “Polygons Forever” in math; “Mussel Power” in biology; “Random Harmonic Series” in music; “Why Do My Friends Have More Friends than I Do?” and “Narcissistic Numbers” in psychology; “Proof that the World Is Round” in history; “The Affair of the Above-Average Driver” in driver education, and so on. This book contains mysteries for every discipline.

Appropriate for high school

math, ELA



BookTalk: Historical Heartthrobs

by Sharon Kane
historical-heartthrobsHave you ever thought about the romantic interests of John Wilkes Booth? Or the marriage of Harriet Beecher Stowe? How about the family life of Roberto Clemente? Or the relationship between Harry Houdini and his magician’s assistant? The theme of love brings together 50 people, famous in a variety of fields, in Kelly Murphy’s Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus (with contributor Hallie Fryd; 2014, Zest Books). Each short chapter contains subheadings regarding the subject’s life story, sex life, best feature, and “Heat Factor.” Chapters then end with quotes from or about the subject. A lot of information is packed into this unique reference book.

Whether they read straight through or browse randomly chosen chapters, readers will appreciate the humor as well as gain knowledge about the historical heartthrobs being introduced. They may remember quirky tidbits like Salvador Dali’s moustache; the low “Heat Factor” the authors give to John Wilkes Booth: “Colder than an assassin’s blade” (p. 51); or the high scores awarded to Bessy Coleman: “She believed she could fly! And then she touched the sky!” (p. 115) and W.E.B. Du Bois: “Positively burning (with the desire for change)” (p. 71).

Readers may be spurred to learn more about the figures they have been introduced to and inspired by. Later, they can bring a bit of knowledge about the people they’ve met on these pages to their content area classes. They, and their students, may meet again with Ada Lovelace in computer class, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo in art class, Nikola Tesla and Jane Goodall in science, Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath in English, Fidel Castro and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in global studies. They will have gained many acquaintances, as well as a bit of gossip to liven up their lessons.

This book shows that fun and learning can go together, as can love and fame.

Appropriate for high school

art, history, science, social studies, ELA, math


BookTalk: Secret Coders

by Sharon Kane

secret-codersI picked up Secret Coders, by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes (2015, First Second), for two reasons. First, I recognized the first author as the creator of a number of award-winning graphic novels (a book talk for one of his graphic novels was posted on this site earlier this summer and can be seen here: and as the 2015–2016 National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Also, for a while I have been feeling the need, as the instructions on the bottom of the front cover say, to “Get with the PROGRAM.” I’ve been reading about the value of coding for students and the recommendations for promoting (or even requiring) coding courses in schools. I figured I should learn a bit about it, and what better way to learn how to program computers than through a story told using a graphic-novel format?

The protagonist of Secret Coders, Hopper, has just started at a new school with many creepy characteristics, including a scary janitor, birds that transmit messages through opening and closing their eyes, and binary numbers posted around the campus. Hopper and her new friend Eni figure out the combination to unlock the janitor’s shed; there they find a robot and the program that directs it to complete tasks. Readers are periodically invited to solve logic problems and actively code while following the mystery that is unfolding at the school.

The story stops abruptly, just as three middle school students are given a challenge by the janitor. “Here is another Path Portal, more complex than the one in the courtyard. Succeed in opening it and I will reveal to you the secret of Stately Academy. Fail and you are never to set foot on campus again” (p. 88). Readers are told that the story continues in Secret Coders: Paths & Portals (just released on August 30) and are instructed to visit if they are ready to start coding. Students who visit the site will find downloadable activities, coding lessons, videos, an art gallery, and an invitation to subscribe to Yang’s email list and receive a free comic describing his start in comics.

Secret Coders, with its companion website, offers an interdisciplinary, interactive reading experience. Here’s to the power of binary numbers!

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades

Math, technology, ELA


BookTalk: Biographies of Ada Byron Lovelace

by Sharon Kane

I am fascinated by stories of people with highly developed talents and passions. Ada Byron Lovelace’s life story is one I have only recently discovered, and I can’t get enough of it.

ada1I began by reading a picture book by Laurie Wallmark, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, illustrated by April Chu (2015, Creston Books). The book opens with a description of Ada’s father, Lord Byron, whose scandalous behavior resulted in her mother’s leaving him when Ada was a baby. Ada never knew her father, although ironically he was famous throughout the world.

The book describes Ada’s childhood in early nineteenth century England, filled with a love of mathematics combined with a vivid imagination, resulting in attempts to invent a flying machine. Her mother ensured that she had professional tutors, as well as influential friends, including Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Ada found a kindred spirit in Charles Babbage, designer of the Difference Engine, which Ada was able to try out. Babbage also invented a more powerful Analytical Engine, for which Ada created an algorithm, consisting of a series of mathematical instructions. “The world’s first computer program was complete” (unpaged).

In the Author’s Note, I learned that Ada signed her translation of an article about Babbage’s Analytic Engine, along with additions that included her design for what we would call a computer program, with only her initials, in order to hide her gender. Wallmark’s statement, “Unfortunately, society and circumstances made it difficult for Ada to live the life she dreamed of, that of a professional mathematician” (unpaged), seemed like an understatement to me and I needed to know more.

ada2Next I turned to Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, by James Essinger (2014, Melville House). The early chapters give a lot of information about Lord Byron, including an account from his butler that his dying words were “‘Oh, my poor dear child!-my dear Ada! my God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing…'” (p. 44). His funeral entourage through London streets involved 47 carriages, with a huge crowd of onlookers that did not include Ada or Lady Byron.

This biography is filled with many details of the friendship and collaboration of Ada and Charles Babbage. Essinger’s research leads him to believe that in some ways Ada’s thinking was far ahead of Babbage’s; for example, she was able to envision future applications of the Analytic Engine and had skills in other areas where he had limitations. After quoting an excerpt from Ada’s Notes (one that left me breathless and exhausted), the author remarks, “This 158-word sentence is very likely one of the longest sentences in the history of science, but it is also one of the most intriguing. Ada succeeds in this one sentence in linking mathematics, science, religion and philosophy” (p. 168). He calls another of her sentences perhaps “… the most visionary sentence ever written during the nineteenth century” (p. 169).

Given that Ada’s contributions were so crucial, why didn’t she receive more recognition and acclaim during her own (tragically short) lifetime? Why is Ada Lovelace not a name recognized by all? Why is she not a prominent part of our curriculum? Essinger offers an explanation:

One of the biggest problems was that Ada was a woman, and although she had signed her Notes only with the initials A.A.L., her authorship soon became generally known. The very fact that she was a woman ended up working against her, because the scientific community did not take her work seriously, as it would have done if she had been a man. (p. 192)

Happily, Ada is today lauded and respected by many, and books such as the two discussed here will help many more readers appreciate her superior mind and her enduring and productive passion for mathematics.


Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is appropriate for intermediate grades and beyond.

Ada’s Algorithm is appropriate for high school and beyond.

technology, math, history, ELA