Self-taught Scholar Who Changed the World

Math is hard. Life is hard. Get over it.
– a favorite tee shirt

I follow mathematical principles pretty well for a non-math major, and particularly enjoyed one undergraduate class titled “Physics for Poets.” But I cannot imagine how someone could come up with a new way of understanding and explaining mathematical and logical principles. But George Boole did just that, creating a new scheme which paved the way for an entirely new system of thinking.

A bust of George Boole at University College Cork Photo by J. Emmons

A bust of George Boole at University College Cork Photo by J. Emmons

A shore excursion on our recent cruise took us to University College Cork in Ireland. In the 1800s this was Queen’s College, and George Boole was the first professor of mathematics there. In 1854 Boole published The Laws of Thought and secured his place among the foremost mathematicians, philosophers and logicians of the century. The Boolean algebra incorporated in this treatise is credited as laying the foundations for the information age. Without Boole we would not have easily understood the fundamental importance of electronic switches and the world of ones and zeros governing everything that any computer does. I wonder if Boole had any idea what could grow from this new formulation!

Boole was born in Lincoln, England, the son of a shoemaker. He had a primary school education but very little academic training after that. A local bookseller may have helped him learn Latin but he taught himself modern languages. At sixteen he became the family breadwinner and became a teacher. He picked up additional mathematics books including a calculus text. “Without a teacher, it took him many years to master calculus.” (Wikipedia) Boole taught at a variety of schools and made contacts with mathematicians as he studied further on his own.

At the age of 34 he went to Ireland to become the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College (Cork) and continued his studies and writings. In addition to his work in math and logic, he invested his interest in a variety of humanitarian causes, including early closings and measures to reduce prostitution. . He died of a fever at 49, leaving a wife and five daughters.

The university commemorates his importance to mathematics and the digital age which has followed.

A green in the older section of UCC, formerly Queen's College in Cork Photo by Je. Emmons

A green in the older section of UCC, formerly Queen’s College in Cork   Photo by J. Emmons

One thing which struck me repeatedly as we toured Ireland, however, was the frequent mention of restrictions on the Irish educational opportunities and religious practices during England’s domination. Irish Catholics were not admitted to universities there, and catholic churches could not be located on main streets. Such a flexing of colonial muscle surely reinforced bad feelings on the Irish side at least, and shored up the attitude of superiority of the privileged Anglo-Irish. I had thought that perhaps Boole managed to beat the system of Irish suppression – but he was English. However he did beat the English class system for succeeding without having an Oxford or Cambridge education.

How much Irish brain power or poetic wisdom was torched or left to die unheeded in those decades? 2016 is the centennial of the 1916 Easter uprising which began the successful battle for Irish independence. You don’t need to dig very deep to uncover residual hard feelings on the Emerald Isle.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

18 August 2016

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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2 Responses to Self-taught Scholar Who Changed the World

  1. Teresa Healy says:

    Great article! Thank you for posting.

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