News and Views

Book launch shines New Light on George Boole

22 Nov 2018
Yvonne Cohen and Professor Desmond MacHale, co-authors of New Light on George Boole, which explores the personal life of the mathematical genius.

New Light on George Boole, which explores the personal life of UCC's first Professor of Mathematics and the forefather of the Information Age, will be launched at the University today.

The most controversial chapter in New Light on George Boole is devoted to the theory that Boole was the inspiration for Professor James Moriarty, the arch villain of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Extensive evidence, both factual and pictorial, is presented in support of this theory. 

Co-authored by Professor Desmond McHale and Yvonne Cohen, the book explores the human side of George Boole; his family history, reaction to the Irish Famine, his life as a professor and influence on his students, friends, family and mathematicians.

Desmond McHale, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at UCC, who also wrote the George Boole biography, The Life and Work of George Boole, said: “Having written at length about George Boole’s academic life in the first book, it was fascinating to delve further into his remarkable life and his influence on his personal relationships. 

“Looking at the interesting correspondence between Boole and his family, friends and colleagues, helps us to gain a greater insight into the life of this genius and his outstanding life and legacy.” 


  • Boole arrived in Ireland in 1849 shortly after the Famine or Great Hunger, but the country was still suffering from its devastating effects. As he travelled by train from Dublin to Cork, he was horrified by the state of the country, and deeply moved by the plight of the people. He wrote: 'There is over the country an air of utter destitution and abandonment. For miles and miles, you see nothing but fields overgrown with weeds and vast desolate bogs, cabins few in number and of the most wretched kind, scarcely a tree between you and the horizon, scarcely a human being or a herd of cattle in the fields. I can conceive of nothing worse...I went this morning to church and on my return went into a street in which there was a great crowd of people. It was almost entirely composed of starving beggars, and the sight far exceeded in horror not only that I have ever before witnessed, but I had even read of.'
  • Boole dined with and socialised with many interesting people while in Cork. Among these were General Francis Chesney, the man who first proposed and planned the Suez Canal, and Captain James Hervey, one of those who closed the gate at Waterloo and according to the Duke of Wellington swung the battle in his favour. He also befriended and advised Alexander Mitchell who built lighthouses on sandbanks, one of which still survives in Cobh harbour.
  • Boole was one of the first whistleblowers in Irish society. To his great distress, he felt he had to expose the maladministration of Sir Robert Kane, the President of Queen's College Cork. A Royal Commission was set up and Boole was completely vindicated, receiving censure only for discussing college affairs anonymously by means of letters to Cork newspapers.
  • George Boole's wife, Mary Everest Boole, conducted a correspondence with Charles Darwin, asking him if it were possible for a Christian to believe in his Theory of Evolution. Darwin's evasive reply is quoted in the book.
  • There is a detailed account of the meeting of Boole and Babbage in London in 1862. Had they both lived, would we have had the digital revolution a hundred years earlier?
  • Was Boole's wife Mary Everest Boole wrongly blamed for contributing to her husband's premature death by her crank medical theories? We weigh up the evidence and point the finger elsewhere.
  • George Boole had surprisingly modern attitudes to pregnancy, breastfeeding, fatherhood, child rearing, and inoculation for a Victorian academic.

Read an extract from the book, New Light on George Boole, online.

Desmond McHale is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at UCC and Yvonne Cohen, a UCC Mathematics and History graduate who also holds a Masters degree in Mathematics from UCC, is a chartered accountant.

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