George Boole exhibition opens in UCC to mark bicentenary

Account of discussions on possible precursor to computer part of display at Boole Library

Prof Des MacHale: “George Boole’s life reveals that there is an innate simplicity and humanity in genius.”

Prof Des MacHale: “George Boole’s life reveals that there is an innate simplicity and humanity in genius.”

 

An account of a discussion between leading 19th-century mathematicians, George Boole and Charles Babbage about the possibility of building a precursor to the computer is among the items in a new exhibition in Cork to mark the bicentenary of Boole’s birth.

The exhibition at University College Cork where the self-taught Boole became the first professor of mathematics in 1849 was officially opened Thursday at the Boole Library by Boole’s biographer and mathematician, Prof Des MacHale.

Prof MacHale explained that the exhibition includes a first-hand account of the meeting between Boole and British mathematician and inventor, Babbage, who is considered the “the father of the computer” when they discussed the idea of “a thinking machine”.

“George Boole’s life reveals that there is an innate simplicity and humanity in genius, and that investigations in pure mathematics are worthwhile, both for their intrinsic value and beauty and the possibility that they will lead to something useful and beneficial to society.”

Legacy

Prof MacHale said Boole’s legacy is to be found throughout the modern information age in devices such as mobiles, computers, information storage and retrieval systems, electronic circuits and controls that support life, learning and communications.

Born in Lincoln, Boole became the first mathematician to be awarded the Gold Medal for Mathematics by the Royal Society in 1844 and four years later was appointed the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College Cork, now UCC.

Among the other items at the exhibition entitled The Life and Legacy of George Boole 1815 -2015 are a series of letters in which Boole gives his impressions of Cork and the state of the country as he travelled south by train from Dublin – just two years after the Great Famine.

“Of the state of cultivation in Ireland judging from what I yesterday saw while travelling from Dublin it is impossible to speak in terms too sad. There is over the whole country an air of utter destitution and abandonment,” he wrote.

“For miles and miles you see nothing but fields overgrown with weeds . . . scarcely a human being by the way or a herd of cattle in the fields,” Boole added before going on to recount his satisfaction with his new posting in Cork.

“I have at length arrived at scene of my future labours and have taken what I think will prove comfortable lodging close by the college. The situation and the prospects around are all that could be desired.

“The river Lee flows in front of us through a beautiful valley the sides of which are covered with wood in many parts, an unusual sight in Ireland, and with suburban villas, Cork is so far as I have yet seen is [sic] a very pleasant and indeed a rather fine city.”

The UCC exhibition is open to the public until the end of 2015 with free entry and runs simultaneously with another in Boole’s hometown Lincoln, for which Lincoln University Library and Lincoln Cathedral have partnered with UCC.