George Boole: generous genius
University College Cork is hosting a series of conferences to honour the institution’s first professor of mathematics, a man who made the digital age possible
Inclement: Boole loved everything about Cork except the weather, which ended up killing him – getting caught in a storm led to pneumonia – when he was 49, in 1864. Wood engraving photographed by Ann Ronan/Print Collector/Getty
George Boole, one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, is the embodiment of the self-made man. Although it has been claimed that he was the inspiration for Sherlock Holme’s arch nemesis, Moriarty, the real Boole was an academic, humanitarian and family man. Even though he had no formal education beyond primary school, his Boolean algebra paved the way for digital computing and modern electronic devices.
The eldest of four children, Boole grew up in Lincoln, England, and was a child prodigy. His mother, Mary Ann, was a lady’s maid who loved poetry, literature and music. His father, John, was a frustrated amateur scientist and inventor who understood his son’s potential early on.
But John Boole’s interest in science meant that his shoe business often took a back seat. He couldn’t afford his son’s second-level education, so Boole learned some maths from his father, got help with Latin from a local bookseller and then taught himself French, German, Italian and classical Greek.
As a teenager Boole began to take a serious interest in mathematics, and a Dublin-born squire, Edward Ffrench Bromhead, played a pivotal role in Boole’s self-education in the subject. “There was no internet, no local libraries, but Bromhead gave him access to his library, which was a massive thing,” says Des MacHale, emeritus professor of mathematics at University College Cork and author of The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age. “He had all those papers and books, and of course he could read the continental stuff in its original form, and the great masters of mathematics, such as Lagrange and Laplace. He wasn’t attached to, or near, any universities that would have had those papers. He was just lucky that this local squire recognised his genius and gave him access.”
At 16 George became the sole breadwinner in the family, after his father’s business collapsed. Even though Boole had initially considered a life as a clergyman, he now had to take on a teaching post and learn on the job. “He was the sole supporter of his family right up until the 1850s. He lent them money, gave them money as presents, and did this for an awful lot of other people; friends down on their luck, people who were out of work. He was extremely generous.”
Boole was also very giving with his time and believed in the power of education to create a better life for people. In 1834 he became active in the Mechanics’ Institute, an adult-education centre. For many years he taught mathematics, science and the classics free of charge.
He was also involved with Lincolnshire Penitent Females’ Home, whose aim was to get prostitutes off the streets and into “respectable” employment.
By the age of 25 Boole had set up his own Boarding School for Young Gentlemen in his home town, and was popular with his students.
“He was a good teacher. Sometimes they say the brighter you are the less well you teach, because you don’t really understand people’s difficulties, but that wasn’t his case. He was somebody that understood students and was prepared to help them and understand their difficulties and explain them away.”
Even though he loved teaching, being headmaster left him little time for mathematical research. In 1849 he was appointed professor of mathematics at the recently founded Queen’s University Cork.
By then Boole had had 20 papers published and been awarded a Royal Society gold medal for one of them. He applied for the position with recommendations and references from some of the foremost mathematicians of the day.
“He desperately wanted to carry out original maths research,” says MacHale. “One of the main features of the job in Cork was that he would have a library first of all, and time to research in between lectures. Someone with no qualifications had no hope of getting a university position in England or Scotland. You really had to have an Oxford or Cambridge background before you got professorship, and he didn’t even have a second-level education, let alone a university degree, so there was no hope for him there. The English authorities wouldn’t have taken the same risk as the Cork authorities took.”
The risk paid off for the university and for Boole, who published three masterworks and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1857. This confirmed his reputation as one of the leading mathematicians of his time.
Cork also proved a turning point in his personal life. For five years he taught mathematics to Mary Everest, niece of George Everest, after whom the mountain is named. They married in 1855, when he was 40 and she was 23. “They seemed very well suited and seem to have a very happy marriage together. They had their first child, Margaret, just nine months after they got married. He was ecstatic about fatherhood. He absolutely loved it. I’ve tried to dig up some sort of seedy side of the man, and I really can’t find it. He really took the family thing on in a wonderful way and was liked by his kids very well.”
His five daughters went on to acclaim in their own right. Alicia made significant discoveries in four-dimensional geometry. Ethel Lilian wrote the acclaimed novel The Gadfly. Margaret’s son GI Taylor was the leading British fluid dynamicist of the 20th century.
Boole loved everything about Cork except the weather, which ended up killing him in 1864. At 49 years old he got caught in a rainstorm while walking to college and taught in his damp clothes. He contracted pneumonia and within a few weeks was buried in Blackrock, Cork.
When Boole died the family was left with very little money. Everest had to sell her husband’s gold medal from the Royal Society, go to London to work as a university assistant and send some of the children to relatives in Lincolnshire and Cork.
Boole’s legacy is still felt. “Every time you take out money or use a smartphone, all of that is due to the ideas that he had. He would have been astonished by what’s going on today, on the simple principle that he set down,” MacHale says.
The George Boole Bicentenary Celebration 2015 continues at University College Cork on Saturday, August 29th, and Sunday, August 30th. The 21st International Conference on Principles and Practice of Constraint Programming runs from Monday, August 31st, to Friday, September 4th. The George Boole Mathematical Sciences Conference ran from August 17th to August 28th; booleconferences.ucc.ie
The Genius of George Boole is on RTÉ One at 10.35pm on Tuesday, September 1st