Isaac Newton, Wikipedia tells us, “is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution.” George Boole (1815-1864) was undoubtedly also one of the most influential scientists of all time, and a key figure in the digital revolution. Both men were from Lincolnshire, England, and had Unitarian leanings, which impacted their career paths in the Anglican dominated world of their eras.
Furthermore, both made key mental breakthroughs while enjoying fresh air outdoors.
Newton’s Eureka, or Aha! Moment, was his celebrated musing on falling apples, in 1666 when he was 23, which in due course inspired his development of the theory of gravitation. Boole’s came early in 1833, when he was only 17, while walking across a field in Doncaster:
“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 .”
So reports mathematician Des MacHale in his biography The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age (Cork University Press, 2014). MacHale writes 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.”
Boolean algebra and Boolean logic are very well known today, and form the backbone of electrical engineering and computer science. Indeed anyone who even casually searches the Internet , say for “Michael Jackson” the late beer and whiskey expert rather than the singer and dancer of the same name, knows how to make judicious use of AND, OR and NOT.
However, it wasn’t until almost a century after Boole’s pioneering work that the world caught up. Both Victor Shestakov at Moscow State University in 1935 and Claude Shannon at MIT in 1937 proposed using Boolean logic to design electrical switches, the latter’s work paving the way for a major shift in electrical engineering in the USA. By late 1948, Shannon had introduced what we now know as information theory, and digital computers soon followed.
George Boole—like Newton before him—was an unlikely success story. Born to a shoemaker father, he had little formal education, but was a gifted student with an obsession for learning and self-improvement. At age 16, he began teaching to support his family, and before his 19th birthday he’d opened his own school in Lincoln. He also wrote, and translated, poetry, and was very concerned about the moral upbringing of his pupils.
His self-taught mastery of continental languages as well as his proficiency in Latin and Greek gave him a distinct edge over his better educated mathematics contemporaries, as he was able to read European texts which others in England tended to ignore. Over the next decade, he continued teaching, reading widely and learning advanced mathematics by himself. He started conducting original research, and is credited with creating invariant theory in the early 1840s. His correspondence with mathematicians Arthur Cayley and Augustus de Morgan, and the support they offered him, enabled Boole to secure the first professor of mathematics position at the brand new Queen’s College Cork, in Ireland. It was a remarkable achievement for a man with no university education.
Boole was a frugal man with sympathies for society’s less privileged classes, and in his early years in Cork—in the deep south of a country still reeling from the effects of the Great Famine—his letters reveal that his social conscience was bothered by the opulence enjoyed in some circles. In 1855, he married Mary Everest, more than fifteen years his junior, another self-taught English mathematician who saw herself as a mathematical psychologist. She provided valuable input into the three books he wrote in Ireland. Together, they had five daughters, one of whom (Alicia) went on to achieve fundamental results in 4-dimensional geometry.
Boole’s landmark book The Laws of Thought appeared in 1854, laying out rules of logic and their application to probability, and was followed by books on differential equations and the calculus of finite differences. Sadly, in late 1864, George Boole was struck down by pnuemonia at the age of 49. He’d walked to the college in heavy rain a fortnight earlier, and the wet sheet treatment allegedly meted out by his wife, a big fan of homeopathy, probably didn’t help.
“One of the great unsung architects of today’s world” wrote Ian Stewart of Boole in his foreword to MacHale’s book. Well, he’s unsung no more: a humorous song called “The Bould Georgie Boole” has surfaced telling his tale:
MacHale’s tome is very readable and comprehensive, with extensive citations of primary sources, and it strenuously avoids fanciful stories propagated earlier by others (the web won’t let go of the buckets of ice myth, which MacHale can’t even bring himself to mention). There are chapters on Boole’s religion, his poetry, his odd lack of a relationship with William Rowan Hamilton (his rough contemporary and Ireland’s most famous mathematician), and his remarkable descendents. For instance, his grandson Sebastian Hinton invented the jungle gym, originally conceived to help children understand 3-dimensional space, which Boole incidentally thought was intimately related to the Holy Trinity!
University College Cork (formerly Queen’s College Cork) has been celebrating Boole’s bicentennial and legacy all of this year, with numerous conferences and public lectures. There’s also a special worldwide Boole2School initiative aiming to hook young fans of games such as Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft and a new documentary narrated by Cork resident Jeremy Irons. Boole’s home city of Lincoln is also remembering an outstanding local son.
MacHale even has a new theory about a hitherto-unsuspected influence Boole may have had: as inspiration for Professor Moriarty, the arch-enemy of Sherlock Holmes in the popular Victorian fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle.