This week we asked Professor Des MacHale why we should celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Professor Boole.
University College Cork’s authority on Professor Boole’s life and work provided an insight to the man who became know as the 'forefather of the information age'.
“I am not a huge fan of anniversaries—a hundredth anniversary means literally that the earth has gone around the sun as many times as the square of the number of fingers on most human hands, since a certain event happened. But on the other hand, anniversaries are very convenient pegs to hang our hats on if we want to remember noteworthy events. So, 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole, first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College Cork, now UCC. Boole was a mathematician, logician, scientist, and psychologist (by his own description). But he was also a teacher, and a good one by all accounts, a devoted family man, a social reformer, a QCC whistleblower, a poet, a humanitarian, and a promoter of adult education. Not bad for a largely self-taught guy who had to leave school before he was sixteen because of the family income situation, and never got the chance of a third level qualification.
Boole was a good if not exceptional pure mathematician by nineteenth century standards. He excelled at calculus, differential and difference equations (on which he wrote textbooks) and in the 1840 actually founded a brand new branch of the subject called Invariant Theory, still flourishing today.
He laid the foundations of modern Probability Theory, which rules much of our lives today. But what marks Boole out as an innovator and a genius is his discovery of mathematical logic in symbolic form. Using the words AND ,OR, and NOT he showed how everyday speech ,logic, and deduction could be reduced to symbolic or mathematical form. He thus fulfilled the dreams of Aristotle, Pascal, and Leibnitz.
Around 1939 Claude Shannon, an engineer at MIT discovered that Boolean algebra as it is now called, which had lain dormant for nearly a hundred years ,was exactly the language needed to describe electronic switching circuits . This gave rise to the digital revolution, so that every time we operate a smart phone, a computer, an ipad, or any electronic device, we are using Boole’s work developed here in Cork.
Did Boole foresee all this? Well there was no electricity as we know it available at the time, but there can be no doubt that he saw a future where machines would do the work, freeing us all for leisure and more intellectual activities!And the man is not finished yet—there is very compelling evidence to show that George Boole was the model for Sherlock Holmes arch-villain, mathematician Professor James Moriarty. But that is a story for another day!”
On Tuesday February 24th 2015 Professor MacHale is speaking to the UCC Student Mathematical Society on the topic of Mathematical Lateral Thinking Puzzles in the Civil Engineering Building Room 110 at 8pm. At this meeting Dr.Declan Kennedy of the Education Department UCC will launch a new book, Mathematical Lateral Thinking Puzzles (Sterling Press, New York, 2015) which Professor MacHale has written in conjunction with Paul Sloane.