THE GREATNESS OF GEORGE BOOLE
George Boole (the Father of Symbolic Logic) was probably the most illustrious academic who ever worked at University College, Cork (then Queen's College, Cork). He was not only a mathematical genius but also a fine humanitarian. A strong minded individual, he was prepared to engage in protracted and bitter arguments with academic colleagues. His revolutionary advances in mathematics are today fundamental aspects of computer science and electronics and his Boolean Algebra is used to design and operate computers and other electronic devices. The definitive biography of Boole is 'George Boole: His Life and Work', by Desmond MacHale, (Boole Press, 1985).
George Boole was born in Lincoln, England in 1815. The family economic circumstances were very modest - his father was a struggling shoemaker and his mother a lady's maid. His father was also an amateur scientist and instrument maker, and together with his son made many fine scientific instruments.
Intellectually, George was a child prodigy. He started school at the age of 1½. There is a lovely story of how he went missing one day at the age of 2½. After much searching he was found in downtown Lincoln in the middle of an excited crowd. Individuals in the crowd were shouting out difficult words to the child as a spelling test. George was fluently and correctly spelling the words and being showered with coins in reward.
Boole proposed that logical propositions should be expressed as algebraic equations. The algebraic manipulation of the symbols in the equations provides a fail-safe method of logical deduction, i.e. logic is reduced to algebra. Boole replaced the operation of multiplication by the word 'and' and addition by the word 'or'. The symbols in the equations can stand for collections of objects (sets) or statements in logic. For example, if x is the set of all brown cows and y is the set of all fat cows, then x+y is the set of all cows that are brown or fat, and xy is the set of all cows that are brown and fat.
Let z = the set of all Irish cows. Then z(x+y) = zx+zy; in other words 'the set of Irish cows that are either brown or fat is the same as the collection of cows that are Irish and brown or Irish and fat'.
Boolean algebra provides the basis for analysing the validity of logical propositions because it captures the two-valued character (binary) of statements that may be either true or false. Boole had discovered a new kind of mathematics that would later turn out to be ideal for the manipulation of information within computers. Also, much of the 'new maths' studied today by schoolchildren stems from Boole's work.
In 1937, a number of workers noticed that Boole's two valued logic lent itself to a description of electrical switching circuits. They showed that the binary numbers (0 and 1), combined through Boolean algebra, could be used to analyse electrical switching circuits and thus used to design electronic computers. Today, digital computers and electronic circuits are designed to implement this binary arithmetic.
As Boole's reputation grew, he became confident enough to apply for university posts. When the Queen's Colleges were founded in Ireland in 1845 he applied for a Professorship and he was appointed to Queen's College, Cork (now UCC) in 1849 as Professor of Mathematics. Not bad for a man who had little or no formal secondary education and no degree.
In 1854 Boole married Mary Everest, niece of Sir George Everest, after whom the mountain is named. Boole's marriage was very happy and the couple produced 5 daughters. In addition to his university teaching and research, Boole was also active in Adult Education in Cork.
By the mid 1850s the fortunes of the university had declined. There was dissatisfaction amongst the staff with the policies of the College President, Sir Robert Kane. Boole opposed Kane. He wrote vitriolic letters to the newspapers complaining about Kane, and Kane replied. A Royal Commission was set up to investigate affairs. Kane was forced to change his ways, but Boole was admonished for washing dirty linen in public.
Let me digress briefly to say a word about rows in the
academic world. There is a feeling abroad that such rows are more bitter
than are rows in other professions. I suspect that there is some truth
in this, but I have never worked outside the university, so I cannot be
sure. There are several reasons why quarrels between academics might be
particularly bitter. There is some wisdom in the oft-quoted sneer made
by Henry Kissinger - 'University politics are vicious precisely because
the stakes are so small'. Academics in general, in my experience, are
too eager to quarrel amongst themselves and far too reluctant to stand
up for the legitimate interests of the university when these are attacked
by outside bodies. Let me therefore propose an alternative version of
the Kissinger quote - 'Rows amongst academics are so vicious precisely
because they are the only rows they allow themselves'.
Boole died prematurely in 1864 from pneumonia developed as a result of a wetting. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Michael's Church of Ireland, Blackrock, Cork.
A window, The Boole Window, was installed by public subscription in the Aula Maxima at UCC. Recently the new Boole Library and Boole Lecture Theatre complex at UCC were named in his honour. However, his most enduring legacy will be that whenever the subjects of Mathematics, Electronics, Logic, Information Theory, Cybernetics and Computer Science are taught, his name will be remembered for his beautiful, simple and universally useful theories.
(This article first appeared in The Irish Times, May 20, 1996.)