Many will recognise that strings of binary numbers, 0s and 1s, are a core feature for the development of digital electronics and computer programming languages, and so an integral part of the way we live our lives. As is often the case its origins are mathematical, from a system known as Boolean algebra. Introduced by George Boole in his 1847 publication ‘The Mathematical Analysis of Logic’, Boole constructs this system of 1s and 0s, True and False, along with logical operators.
While Boolean Algebra is well known and widely used, its creator does not always receive the recognition he deserved. George Boole lived an interesting and varied life compared to most academics of the time, and so this week we celebrate his achievements and, rather fittingly, his 205th birthday!
It’s common for mathematicians to peak young, producing their most ground-breaking and insightful papers in their early twenties and thirties before retiring to a life of academia and teaching. FOR George Boole, however, this was simply not the case. Firstly, Boole was largely self-taught – but in languages rather than mathematics. While not impoverished he certainly did not come from a wealthy background. He grew up in Lincolnshire where his father’s shoemaking business struggled, and his family could not afford an education for their children. Boole instead taught himself modern languages and from age 16 started teaching. At 19 he established a school in Lincoln and made his living well into his thirties by running several different schools in the area. During this time he became a prominent local figure, setting up a building society as well as campaigning to improve working conditions for labourers.
Alongside this career his interest in mathematics, specifically algebra, had been growing and from the late 1830s he began communicating with several British academics. He taught himself the latest courses and in his late twenties Boole started to pursue an opportunity to study at a university. He chose not to enrol at the prestigious University of Cambridge: with no formal qualifications he would have to start at undergraduate level and be unable to continue with his own research.
Despite the informality of his studies, Boole continued to read and research mathematics and in 1847 published his first book The mathematical analysis of Logic in which he defined his famous algebra. Shortly after, his academic career did start to take a more typical route when he was appointed professor of mathematics at Queens College, Cork. There, he produced further significant work such as his 1857 paper ‘On the Comparison of Transcendent, with Certain Applications to the Theory of Definite Integrals’ which studied the sum of residues of a rational function and included the well-known Boole’s Identity:
His successful career and contributions to the fields of probability and algebra are remembered and celebrated by the fact the algebra he created still bears his name; but perhaps the biggest gesture is the crater on the moon named in his honour!
Maths in the media…
Big moon news from NASA!! https://www.bbc.com/news/av/science-environment-54698308
An infinite Universe of Number systems https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-the-towering-p-adic-numbers-work-20201019/
The travelling salesman in space https://www.newscientist.com/article/2258086-mathematicians-have-found-the-shortest-route-to-visit-2-million-stars/