George Boole: The Genius

George Boole was a British mathematician, and he is known as the inventor of Boolean Algebra. His theories combined the concepts of logic and mathematics, and hence he is known as the father of mathematical logic. This combination of mathematics and logic came to be known as Boolean algebra, and is the basis of digital electronic design, which is used in fields ranging from telephone switching to computer engineering. Because of the utilization of the concepts of Boolean algebra in electronics and computers, George Boole is regarded by many as the father of computing also.

George was born on 2nd November, 1815 in Lincoln, England. His father, John Boole was a shoemaker, and his mother a housewife. John Boole proved to be a great influence in George’s life due to his keen interest in science and mathematics. He shared his passion with his son, and started teaching George at an early age. By the time he was seven, George was deeply in love with mathematics, and used to be lost in the world of mathematics. He acquired a reputation as a child genius, and one day, he was found spelling difficult words for people’s amusement after going missing from school.

George was from a poor family, and his parents could not afford to pay fees for grammar school, so the child genius ended up going to a small school called Mr. Bainbridge’s Academy. He made fast progress in studies, and was soon assisting teachers in teaching and grading. His exploits weren’t limited to just math and science either; he loved to read and learn, and was very well read in a lot of subjects. His father John also introduced him to literature and Latin, but George soon learned all his father had to offer. After that, John found George a tutor – bookseller William Brooke.

Mr. Brooke turned out to be a great asset for George; he gave George access to all the books in his store, and also taught him. Mr. Brooke and George ended up being lifelong friends. However, just knowing Latin was not enough for George. He added Greek to his repertoire, and this was completely self-taught. He also went on to study French, German, and Italian. In May 1930, the local paper published George’s translation of Greek poet Meleager’s work, and this got George his reputation as a boy genius. By age 16, George had to start seeking employment.

His father’s business was failing, and his earnings were the sole income of the family. At his first job, he was asked to convert to Methodism or resign, and he chose to resign. Then he worked at various elementary schools as a teacher before opening up his own school at the young age of twenty. His teaching philosophy was that education should be well balanced, and no subjects should be ignored, as they were essential to understanding other subjects properly. While providing for his family by working as a school master, George also managed to continue serious studies in mathematics by night.

He acquired a reputation in the world of mathematics by publishing several papers in The Cambridge Mathematical Journal. He then wrote his first book titled “The Mathematical Analysis of Logic” in 1847. In this book he demonstrated that Aristotelian logic could be successfully represented using algebraic equations, and firmly established his reputation in the world of mathematics. In 1849 George was appointed chair of the mathematics department at Queen’s College at Cork, Ireland. But, as he had no degree, for getting this appointment George had to send several recommendations to the Board at the university.

The recommenders included students, the editor of The Cambridge Mathematical Journal, and several eminent scientists. The University was a newly opened one, and George helped form it. In the year 1851, he was elected Dean of Science for the university. George enjoyed his position at the university, and was there till the time of his death. It was at the university in 1854 that he continued his research into applied mathematics and came up with his masterpiece – An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities.

This was a continuation of his earlier work, and it established him as a premier mathematician and philosopher of his time. George also met Mary Everest at the university in 1850, and married her in 1855, after the demise of her father left her needing support. Mary herself was a very good mathematician, and is known as one in her own right. She was George’s sounding board and editor for the length of their nine year marriage, until George’s death. On 24th November in 1864, George walked in the rain to teach a class, and taught the class while being completely wet.

He ended up getting an infection in his lungs, and died a fortnight later, on 8th December 1864. His wife Mary’s approach to trying to cure him was also one of the primary reasons of his death. She believed in the theory that the cause would also be the cure, so instead of keeping him warm, she regularly drenched him with water in bed, leading to severe complications. Ironically, Mary said she did it because it seemed logical’ to her! George’s works considered purely mathematical until the year 1937. In 1937, Claude Shannon, a graduate student at MIT, discovered the connection between electronic circuits and Boolean algebra.

This connection is essential to the operation of computers and modern electronics circuits. Computers and circuits utilize Boolean algebra for all their decision making calculations, and without it they would be quite useless. George Boole was well ahead of his time with his mathematical theories and the combination of mathematics and logic. His theories are in use today, a century after his time, and will be in use as the basis of one of the most important machines man has ever built. He was a true genius, and his work has gotten him the deserved title of the father of mathematical logic.


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