George Boole, the mathematician who was born 200 years ago this week (2 Nov, 1815) in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England, was the son of a shoemaker, left school at the age of sixteen, never attended a university but would become the architect of what we call the digital age today. The first professor of mathematics at the new Queen's College, in Cork, Ireland, wrote his 1854 magnum opus, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, while living in the city.

 

In a foreword to the biography The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age (Cork University Press, 2014), authored by Des MacHale, emeritus professor of mathematics at University College Cork, Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics, Warwick University, UK, writes:

If judged by name recognition, Boole pretty much sank without trace, except among mathematicians and computer scientists. If judged by results, he was one of the most influential intellectuals of his era, and one of the great unsung architects of today’s world. It was Boole, perhaps more than any other, who first came to appreciate the deep connections between mathematics and logic. Not the use of logic in mathematical proofs but the use of mathematics to illuminate the workings of logic [ ] Only with the invention of the digital computer did the real value of Boole’s ideas emerge. What had seemed little more than abstruse philosophy suddenly became engineering practice. His take on logic was exactly what electronic engineers needed to give computers the ability to perform different tasks according to the truth or falsity of some condition. ‘If cursor on button 1 and mouse clicked, display e-mail message. If cursor on button 2 and mouse clicked, open new field for reply to be typed into. If cursor on button 3 and mouse clicked, display photo.’ His true/false symbols 0 and 1 can be interpreted as ‘no electrical current flowing’ and ‘some current flowing.’His algebraic operations and rules translate into electronic circuits that carry out logical tasks. Boole’s reduction of basic features of logic to mathematics informs both computer software and hardware design.

The story of Sir Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) eureka scientific moment when watching falling apples in 1666, is well-known. Boole's happened when he was 17 when walking across a field in Doncaster.

Prof Des MacHale writes:

He relates that the thought flashed upon him suddenly [], but he laid it aside for many years []. The thought however smouldered in his subconscious and became an integral part of his main ambition is life — to explain the logic of human thought [].

George Boole, Cork, IrelandMacHale adds according to a report in Scientific American, that this was when “Boole first contemplated the ideas which were to grow into his major contribution to mathematics — the expression of logical relations in symbolic or algebraic form. He adds that while it would be another decade before Boole refined his ideas and published his first work on symbolic logic, “Boole referred to the incident many times in later life and seems to have regarded himself as cast in an almost messianic role.”

What came to be known as Boolean algebra was used by the engineer Claude Shannon (1916-2001) in the 1930s to design electrical circuits which could be used to carry out sequences of logical instructions based on the binary values “on/true” or “off/ false”. These circuits evolved into modern computers and the instruction sequences became computer programmes, or algorithms. Thus, Boole’s work provides the mathematical and logical underpinning of computers, not only in their languages, but in their very construction.

Boole arrived in Cork in Oct 1849 and On 7 Nov, Queen's College opened its doors to a small group of students (only 115 students in that first session, 1849-1850) after an inaugural ceremony in the Aula Maxima (Great Hall), which is still the symbolic and ceremonial heart of University College Cork today (see pic above of conferring ceremony in 2011).

It was a grim time for Ireland in the aftermath of the Potato Famine — the greatest disaster in the history of the country.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert arrived at the Cove of Cork on 2 Aug 1849 and the visit had been arranged by Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to draw attention from the famine and alert British politicians through the queen’s presence, to the seriousness of the crisis in Ireland.

As a result of the municipal reform act of 1840, Cork was under the control of a nationalist council and Clarendon called Cork’s municipal authority "the most notorious ruffians in Ireland, worse even than their brethren of Dublin."

The queen later noted in her diary: " Cork is not at all like an English town. [It] . . . looks rather foreign. The crowd is a noisy, excitable, but a very good-natured one, running and pushing about, and laughing, talking and shrieking."

There was an outbreak of cholera in the city and Queen Victoria watched from her carriage on the Western Road, the putting in place of her statue on the roof of the college's Aula Maxima — Prof John A. Murphy, the official UCC Historian, recounts 1849 and the later history of the statue in this video.

George Boole, laws of thought

In 1855 George Boole married Mary Everest, later a noted educationalist and niece of Sir George Everest, after whom the world’s highest mountain is named. The couple had five daughters — Mary Ellen, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy and Ethel Lillian, all of whom lived interesting lives and several of whom became famous in their own right. In addition to his university teaching and research, Boole was also active in adult education in Cork according to Prof MacHale.

However, in December 1864, in the full vigour of his intellectual powers, Boole died after developing pneumonia. He is buried in St Michael’s Church of Ireland cemetery in Blackrock, Cork.

Google, George Boole 

This is Google's tribute to George Boole, which accompanied Monday's doodle above.

"Here’s an easy, yes-or-no question:

Is the universe complex?

YES, of course, you could say; it would be crazy to think otherwise! But on the other hand, British mathematician George Boole taught us that NO, things can be seen as relatively simple; any values can be pared down to yes or no, true or false, or 0 or 1 (which, here at Google, is our personal favorite).

In 1849, Boole was appointed as the first Professor of Mathematics at University College Cork, where he pioneered developments in logic and mathematics. His beautiful binary “Boolean” system was detailed in An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (online version of the book from Project Gutenberg) in 1854, which inevitably enabled revolutionary thinking in not just logic and math, but also engineering and computer science.

As one of the most important scientists to have ever worked in Ireland, Boole effectively laid the foundations of the entire Information Age while working from UCC. So it’s fair to say that without George Boole, there’d be no Google! So, as a tribute to Boole’s contributions, artist Leon Hong created today’s doodle, which cycles through all the ANDs, ORs, NOTs, and even XORs of the Boolean states for two discrete variables.

A very happy 11001000th birthday to genius George Boole!"

Boolean logic: George Boole Google Doodle