How George Boole gave birth to ‘pure mathematics’

Boole, who died 150 years ago, opened a new path for maths and will be honoured by UCC, where he worked

George Boole: ‘There would be no internet, no digital computers, and no online search without him’

George Boole: ‘There would be no internet, no digital computers, and no online search without him’

 

One of the world’s great mathematicians, died in Cork 150 years ago this week, a thinker whose work paved the way for digital computing and modern electronic devices of all kinds.

George Boole, who was Cork university’s first professor of mathematics, had caught a fever two weeks previously. He had walked 5 km to the college through driving rain, and then, in wet clothes, gave a lecture. Perhaps not surprisingly he succumbed to infection, as so often happened in those pre-antibiotic days. On December 8th 1864, he died, shortly after his 49th birthday.

Thus, next year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and University College Cork is organising a major programme celebrating the life and legacy of a man acknowledged as the “father of pure mathematics”. Events have just begun in the last few days, with a poignant re-creation of Boole’s final walk.

Boole was a creative and unorthodox thinker who found a way to write logical questions as algebraic equations. He thought of himself as a logician rather than a mathematician yet, in a series of publications in the 1840s and 1850s, he opened a whole new direction for mathematics.

A century later, an American mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon, himself acknowledged as the ‘father of information theory’, used Boole’s concepts, and especially his ‘Boolean algebra’, to design the first digital circuits. The rest, you could say, is 20th century history.

Boole came to Cork in 1849 from England, when he was appointed the first professor of mathematics at the new Queen’s College Cork (now UCC). It was an inspired, perhaps surprising appointment: Boole had no real academic background, and though he had published a number of original papers, he was largely self-taught. Today it would be an unusual, even unlikely professorial appointment, but the 1840s were different times.

He settled in Cork and though he initially described it as “excessively damp”, he later wrote – in what will be no surprise to Corkonians – that it was “the best place in Ireland”.

It was thanks to Cork that Boole met his wife, Mary Everest, niece of his friend and colleague John Ryall, the college’s professor of Greek. Mary was an interesting woman in her own right who later had a career in mathematics education. As her interest in mathematics developed, Boole met, coached and corresponded with her. In 1854, the couple married, enjoyed a happy decade and had five daughters before his untimely death.

In 1854, Boole also published what is arguably his major work, his ‘Laws of Thought’ as it is usually called. Or, to give it its full title: An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. Much of the book was written in Cork. Bertrand Russell, the English mathematician, logician and philosopher, described it as “the work in which pure mathematics was discovered”.

But back to events of 150 years ago. Boole’s funeral took place on December 12th, to St Michael’s Church of Ireland in Ballintemple, and according to a report in the Cork Examiner the following day, his cortege was followed by “serried files of students” in their gowns and caps.

Today, UCC lays claim to be Boole’s academic home. There’s a library named in Boole’s honour and, in the Aula Maxima, a fine stained-glass window erected in his memory by public subscription shortly after his death. And now, the programme to mark Boole’s bicentenary.

The year-long programme of events and exhibitions includes a website – http://georgeboole200.ucc.ie/ – where you can read more about the great man’s life and legacy; also a new edition of a biography, by Des MacHale, himself a retired professor of mathematics at UCC.

But the quickest and most appropriate way to assess Boole’s legacy is to Google him. There would be no internet, no digital computers, and no online search without him. So it’s good to see that the word “Boolean” turns up over 51 million hits.

Strangely, there has yet to be a Google doodle in his honour. An odd omission, given Boolean algebra is the basis of all online searches. Hopefully that’s something Google will rectify in 2015.

 

Mary Mulvihill is a science writer. She tweets about Irish geek heritage at @IngeniousIE

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