KATIE HAFNER: Hello Science Talk Audience / Hello 60-Second Science Listeners!
I’m Katie Hafner, the host of Lost Women of Science† Each season is devoted to the life and work of a scientist who has not received the recognition it deserves.
We call this season ‘A Grasshopper in Very Tall Grass’ and it’s all about Klara Dan von Neumann. Klari, as she was called by friends, was one of the world’s first computer programmers.
I’ve been writing about computers for a long time, over 30 years in fact. I even wrote a history of the internet in 1996 called Where wizards stay up late† And the wizards? All men.
I’m already ahead of this beat So long, I thought I knew all the important figures. But then last year I came across the name of Klara von Neumann, and I drew a blank. How had I missed her?
When I asked a few big players in the computer science world about her, they all had the same answer: Who?
I couldn’t shake the feeling that here was this truly ‘lost’ computer woman – who was nevertheless connected to very well-known histories and people. She was involved in nuclear weapons research, she worked for Los Alamos, she coded for the ENIAC, one of the first electronic computers.
And she walked in a circle of famous scientists – people like Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and her own husband, John von Neumann, a famous Hungarian scientist who was considered one of the smartest people in the world.
I thought Klari could teach us a thing or two about this time: the rise of electronic computers and nuclear warfare. And so we started digging. This season is the result of what we have found.
Here’s the trailer:
UNKNOWN #1: Do I know who Klara von Neumann is?
UNKNOWN #2: I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of her.
UNKNOWN #1: Wasn’t she, didn’t she have something to do with the weather?
UNKNOWN #3: I’ve heard of John von Neumann
UNKNOWN #4: I’m not even sure how to pronounce her name.
UNKNOWN #5: Was she related to Newman on Seinfeld?
KATIE HAFNER: I’m Katie Hafner, host of Lost Women of Sciencewhere we discover the remarkable work of overlooked scientists.
NATHAN ENS MIXER: What Klara von Neumann is doing is helping to define what is possible on this new kind of machine.
WITMAN MARINA: She eventually became something of a super programmer.
KATIE HAFNER: Their stories are often not told. Their contributions not acknowledged.
GEORGE DYSON: Klara’s role was more or less hidden because she had been working on the top secret bombing accounts.
CLAIRE EVANS: Women became programmers and were allowed to have such a huge impact on programming because that job was considered not important.
KATIE HAFNER: In 1947 it was Clara and her code that made nuclear weapons simulations possible.
ANANYO BHATTACHARYA: Programming was a completely new discipline, so basically everyone started on the ground floor, as it were.
WITMAN MARINA: She always said she liked it because she liked puzzles. And this was kind of a puzzle.
THOMAS HAGUE: I mean, like in Los Alamos, she’s like someone with no training in physics or math who talks one-on-one with Nobel laureates, which is pretty incredible.
KATIE HAFNER: And she worked with brand new technology, deep in a world forever changed by nuclear weapons.
CLAIRE EVANS: There is a connection between death and computer use that is inseparable and inescapable in this history.
KATIE HAFNER: Join us as we try to understand the origins of modern computers, through the story of an extraordinary woman.
GEORGE DYSON: She was part of it at the time of creation. If you see this as kind of, you know, crib in a manger, she, she held the crib.
KATIE HAFNER: Season 2 of Lost Women of Science arrives on March 31. Listen wherever you get your podcasts from.
KATIE HAFNER: This season takes us on a journey from wild parties in Budapest and gambling in Monte Carlo to the sedate academia of Princeton and the wild west of New Mexico’s Los Alamos. Klari’s eventful life gives color to this crucial moment in history.
Married four, maybe five times. Figure Skating Champion. computer pioneer. How could we have missed her?
Tune Lost Women of Science to get the full story of a grasshopper in very tall grass.