The Year of George Boole

This week’s That’s Maths column in The Irish Times (TM058, or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com) is about George Boole, the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College Cork.

Boole-Year-UCC-SmallMathematician and logician George Boole died just 150 years ago, on 8 December 1864, following a drenching as he was walking between his home and Queen’s College, Cork. He was aged just 49. UCC has planned a wide range of events for the year running up to the bicentenary of Boole’s birth next November. For details of the Year of George Boole, see www.georgeboole.com.

Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics in Cork. His work has had a growing influence in recent decades, in computer science and digital technologies of all kinds. A biography of Boole by Desmond MacHale of UCC has just been published by Cork University Press, giving a well drawn portrait of Boole, not just as a man of science, but as a social reformer, religious thinker and family man.

Early Life

Boole’s father John was a shoemaker with limited formal education, but with a keen interest in science and mathematics, even to the extent of neglecting business in favour of books: he was happier making a telescope than mending a shoe.

George Boole (1815-1864).

George Boole (1815-1864).

George was born in 1815, the eldest of four children. When he was sixteen, his father’s business collapsed and, to support the family, George took a job as a teacher. Later, he opened his own school in Lincoln when he was just nineteen.

In parallel with his teaching, Boole undertook a programme of research in mathematics. He published papers on differential equations, integration, logic, probability, geometry and linear algebra. Some 24 of his papers were in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. His paper “On a General Method of Analysis” was published in 1844 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and won him the society’s Gold Medal.

Queen’s College Cork

In October 1849 Boole became Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College, despite having no degree and never having attended any university. During his early years there he was lonely but that changed when, aged 40, he married Mary Everest, then but 23 years old. Mary was a niece of Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, after whom the world’s highest mountain is named. The marriage was a happy if brief one, and they had five daughters, all extraordinary in different ways.

In 1833, when he was eighteen, Boole had a flash of inspiration that logical relations could be expressed in symbolic form. This idea would later grow into his major contribution to science: to explain the process of human thought in precise mathematical terms. His great work, The Laws of Thought, was written during his tenure at Queen’s College.

Boole and Computing

The real value of Boole’s work emerged with the invention of the digital computer. His symbolic logic was precisely what electronic engineers needed to design and analyse digital computer circuitry. If logical propositions are expressed in algebraic form, then logical deductions can be drawn by algebraic calculations. We may map the logical dichotomy “True or False” to mathematical bits or binary digits “0 or 1” and then to electric switches “open or closed”. Boole’s symbolic logic proved eminently suitable for the design of modern computers.

MacHale writes that Boole’s name will live on as long as digital computers continue to operate and as long as students study mathematical logic. He observes how Boole would have been delighted could he have known how all modern communication – whether of data, text or images – comprises strings of the Boolean symbols 0 and 1.

 

Sources

The Year of George Boole: www.georgeboole.com.

The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age, by
Desmond MacHale. Cork University Press, 2014, ISBN:978-1-78205-004-9.

 


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