Ann Varela: George Boole

Mar 8, 2017 by

An Interview with Ann Varela: George Boole

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) A very famous English mathematician was George Boole. What do we know about his early life, where he was born, and when, and his childhood?

George Boole was born in Lincoln. Lincolnshire, England and lived from 1815-1864.  His parents had little money and lived in poverty.  Boole’s father was described as having a charismatic personality and participated in Lincoln Mechanics’ Institution which was a social organization promoting discussions, reading, as well as lectures pertaining to science and technology.  He was Boole’s first math teacher.  Boole was persistent with learning as much as he could about mathematics, thus he read mathematics journals in his spare time and was hard-working at a young age to become successful in mathematics and in life.

2) What do we know about his early educational endeavors?

George Boole attended elementary school and he attended a school for business-related subjects for a short period of time.  Boole was completely self-taught beyond this basic education.  Greek and Latin were included in his studies because he thought those languages would aid him to rise above his social class.  In fact, Boole’s father was so proud of him for translating a Greek poem that he had it published.  There were doubters who maintained that a boy of 14 could not have translated the poem without assistance.

Boole’s first lessons in mathematics were conducted by his father, but he was self-taught afterward.  Boole was so dedicated to mathematics that he spent almost five years trying to teach himself calculus from Lacroix’s Differential and Integral Calculus.

It occurred to me that a common theme that runs throughout Boole’s life is that he is self-motivated, creative, dedicated to his studies because he has a genuine interest in the material, devoted to the well-being of his family, and sincerely concerned with sharing his love of mathematics with his pupils.

3) Apparently he was quite successful, even without a formal degree. Can you tell us about that?

At around age, 16 Boole began teaching elementary school in order to help support his parents and siblings financially.  In another four years he opened his own school, then took over Hall’s Academy in Waddington after the death of Robert Hall in 1838.  Simultaneously, Boole was working on his first mathematics manuscript about the calculus of variations.

Upon opening a boarding school and relocating his entire family with him, Boole began publishing regularly in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal and became interested in the study of algebra.  His correspondence with Augustus De Morgan resulted in his manuscript entitled, On a General Method of Analysis.  Boole applied algebraic methods to the solution of differential equations in this endeavor which consequently earned Boole the Mathematical Medal of the Royal Society in 1844.  It was this manuscript that was almost rejected because of Boole’s poverty and lack of formal university schooling.  Providentially, Boole had an advocate in the Royal Society.

After his award winning accomplishment, Boole probed more profoundly into his own work, focusing on perfecting his Mathematical Analysis manuscript because he wanted to develop a way to program logical reasoning into a symbolic language that could be manipulated and explained mathematically.

About five years after earning the Society’s Medal, Boole was appointed as chair of mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork, Ireland.  Keep in mind, Boole had not even earned a university degree, yet he was highly respected and a renowned mathematician.  He eventually went on to become the Dean of Science and raised a family of five daughters with his wife, Mary Everest.

4) Like many mathematicians, his insights and discoveries were not really acknowledged or understood until after his death. Tell us about some of them?

The contributions to mathematics made by George Boole include computer construction, computer programming involving the binary system of digital numeration, how computers process data, electrical engineering applications containing simple switches, relays, and control elements, satellite pictures, telephone circuits, and even Einstein’s theory of relativity.

5) Now, Boolean logic—can you tell us in layman’s terms what this is all about?

Boolean logic uses three operators, AND, OR, and NOT, to compare and manipulate sets.  For example, say you want to rescue a pet at your local shelter.  First, you may rescue a puppy AND a kitten. Next, you may rescue a puppy OR a kitten.  Another option is to rescue a puppy NOT a kitten.  Refer to Figure 1 to see the options drawn out:

Figure 1


6) Sadly, he died, like many others far too young. What led up to his death?

Evidently, Boole walked to Queen’s College in a rain storm, delivered his lecture while soaking wet, and then returned home.  He developed an incurable cold and elevated fever.  His wife cared for him by saturating him with water; this particular treatment was in-line with the field of homeopathy during that period.  Pneumonia was his cause of death at the age of 49.  He is buried in the graveyard of St. Michael’s Church of Ireland, Cork.

7) How does his work still live on today?

It may surprise you that Google has an animated Doodle which uses Boolean functions such as these logic gates:  x AND y, x XOR y, x OR y, NOT y, and NOT x.  The letters in “Google” light up according to which logic gates are below them.  See Figure 2.

Figure 2

George Boole’s 200th Birthday
To see the animation, open the link:

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