The genius of George Boole

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

George Boole (Mark McCauley) in Queen’s College, Cork (now UCC). (Daragh McSweeney)

George Boole (Mark McCauley) in Queen’s College, Cork (now UCC). (Daragh McSweeney)

Ireland’s universities tend to name libraries after eminent persons with whom they are associated. Trinity College has libraries named after the philosopher George Berkeley and the historian W.E.H. Lecky, while NUI Galway named one after the antiquarian James Hardiman. University College Cork opted for the nineteenth-century mathematician George Boole, and this documentary was a contribution to the ongoing commemoration of the bicentenary of his birth, to which UCC is devoting considerable time and attention. This might imply a level of fame, but for much of the period since his death Boole has languished in semi-obscurity. His home at 5 Grenville Place in Cork remains sadly derelict (though there are plans to restore it). Indeed, by his own admission, Michael Murphy, the current president of UCC, spent six years at the college in the 1970s and apparently never heard Boole’s name once.

To a certain extent this is because Boole was ahead of his time, and the creation of a ‘digital world’ in recent decades has returned him to the limelight. Boole’s pioneering mathematical developments have proven to be essential to the development of modern computing; this was the hook on which this rather slick account of his life and work, narrated in occasionally portentous style by Jeremy Irons, sought to draw in the viewer. Despite being claimed by an Irish university, Boole was English; he was born in Lincoln in 1815, the son of an autodidact shoemaker, John Boole, with an enthusiastic interest in science. George Boole was a precocious child, displaying a gift for languages from an early age and, it seems, inheriting an interest in science from his father; this, in turn, led him to the study of mathematics as a vital key to expand his understanding of science. He became a schoolteacher to support his family; if not a gentleman in social terms, he fulfilled the role of a gentleman scholar by continuing to develop his interests and began to research and write papers on mathematics, especially algebra. Boole’s career stands out as an example of meritocracy in action. He was in many ways a social and academic outsider, but in 1844 he won a gold medal from the Royal Society for a paper on the application of algebra to differential equations. His papers brought him to the attention of others in the field, and when he applied for a position as a professor of mathematics in the newly founded (if ‘godless’) Queen’s College, Cork, he marshalled an impressive array of testimonials (including one from Lord Kelvin) to support his application. The timing, in 1849, came at the height of the Famine.

The documentary was narrated by Oscar-winning actor—and west Cork resident—Jeremy Irons.

The documentary was narrated by Oscar-winning actor—and west Cork resident—Jeremy Irons.

While it may be tempting to speculate on how Boole’s environment—and, indeed, the climate of the times—may have influenced his thought, this would be to travel along a somewhat parochial path. The key innovations that Boole devised arise from the ideas he refined and published whilst in Cork, but their significance—as flagged in no uncertain terms in this documentary—lies in their universal appeal. Another pioneering mathematician, Boole’s contemporary William Rowan Hamilton, may well have scratched his pioneering formula for quaternions on a bridge in Cabra in 1843 (as detailed in our September/October issue): this does not mean that quaternions belong to the good people of Cabra alone. But while Hamilton’s algebraic innovations were primarily concerned with three-dimensional space, Boole was applying his mathematical abilities to much broader and more far-reaching concerns.

This universal implication of his discoveries reflects Boole’s intellectual make-up. He was a deeply religious man, who apparently sought to uncover mathematical proof for the existence of God and to understand the very nature of human thought. His multilingualism may have influenced this search for universal principles. Boole was particularly interested in the relationship between mathematics and logic, as evidenced in ‘symbolic logic’, whereby mathematical symbols could be used to represent defined objects or categories rather than just numerical values. This opened the door to the use of mathematics as a means of representing, and calculating, the process of logical development itself, as encapsulated in his major work, An investigation of the laws of thought (1854). His key achievement, according to his biographer Des McHale, was to ‘render simple ideas into algebraic symbols’; reality was thus rendered as symbolic forms that were amenable to mathematical calculation.

Was this a case of a genius spotting the obvious? If so, it leaves open the tantalising question of what Boole might have achieved had he lived longer. He died an ignominious death at the age of 49: after he was soaked in a rainstorm, his wife Mary (whose uncle lent his name to Mount Everest) then soaked him in water as a rather dubious alternative therapy, and he subsequently died of pneumonia. His work was rediscovered in the 1920s, when it became apparent that his ‘logic’ could be applied to the burgeoning technologies of telecommunications: it provided a means for processing data that has become integral to modern computing, which ensures that Boole’s discoveries are integral to human life across the face of the earth in the 21st century.

Virginia Teehan, project leader, Boole documentary, UCC. (Daragh McSweeney)

Virginia Teehan, project leader, Boole documentary, UCC. (Daragh McSweeney)

While a cynic might view this documentary—which is a key element of the bicentenary commemoration of his birth—as being a puff piece for UCC, the sheer boldness of the claims made for Boole held the attention, though more time could have been spent explaining the full extent of his significance to a lay audience rather than just assuring them that it was significant. One got the impression that Boole was being defined solely in terms of his contribution to modern computing, which naturally carries the implication of economic growth. It would be a shame to reduce Boole to dollars and cents; there was far more to his life than that (not least the fact that he may also have been the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty). Those who would like to find out should explore the extremely useful website developed by UCC to mark the bicent-enary (http://georgeboole.com). The history of science in Ireland is not the same as the history of Irish science; given the significance of George Boole to the world in which we live, the distinction should not matter.

John Gibney is editor of www.decadeofcentenaries.com.

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