6 disciplines George Boole revolutionised

2 Nov 2015

George Boole’s use of a blackboard in the classroom was an innovation at its time. Photo via Shutterstock

It’s 200 years since the birth of George Boole, a man whose thinking revolutionised the information age, even though he died long before his ideas took hold. Here are six disciplines that Boole’s thinking helped revolutionise, shaping today’s society.

Born, quite obviously, in 1815, George Boole was an English mathematician, philosopher and logician who became the first ever Professor of Mathematics at University College Cork (UCC).

Long after penning his 1854 masterpiece, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, his brilliance is still being felt today.

1. Mathematics

George Boole’s effect on modern mathematics is perhaps the most understandable, given his UCC position. His interest in maths began at a young age, as he was fascinated with fellow Lancashire local Isaac Newton.

Boole published some papers in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal before his 1841 paper, An Exposition of a General Theory of Linear Transformations, introduced what is now called invariant theory, which played a part in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Boole then began looking at logic, with his 1847 pamphlet A Mathematical Analysis of Logic and 1854 book An Investigation of the Laws of Thought really putting him on a pedestal few have matched.

Boolean logic, or algebra of classes, which originated from far earlier work than these masterpieces, freed mathematics from numbers. It instead introduced symbolism, abstraction and, therefore, the ability to apply maths to everyday situations.

2. Computer science

As a follow-on from his influence in maths comes, quite naturally, computer science. Boolean logic was pounced on by the minds of Boole’s successors on this planet, with his and Charles Babbage’s separate but complementary works inspiring modern-day manufacturing, and programming, of computers.

While Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 1830s was the planet’s first general purpose mechanical computer, it took Boolean logic and 70 years after his Laws of Thought for the penny to drop.

Boolean logic led to an entirely new wave of electronic engineers, inventors and, subsequently, programmers.

3. Engineering

Boolean algebra and symbolic logic also left an indelible imprint on the engineering world. In finding a way to represent ideas in mathematical forms, Boole enabled us to outstrip the limitations of the human mind in terms of storing and manipulating information.

Boole died at just 49 and it was long after his death, in the mid-20th century, that his influence on engineering began, pioneered by one Claude Shannon. This American engineer had encountered Boolean algebra in a philosophy class while studying electrical engineering, but it was while he was working on an early analogue computer at MIT that he thought to combine the two.

Shannon realised that binary characters, being either ones or zeros, are akin to the binary options yes and no. The idea that Boolean logic could then be applied to laying out electrical switching circuits became the subject of Shannon’s 1937 master’s thesis.

Progress, as it tends to do in computing, came fast. Shannon published a seminal paper in 1938 that established the logical basis of modern digital computer circuits, and these groundbreaking ideas were swiftly adopted in the design of automatic telephone switching systems.

Relay switches became vacuum tubes, followed by transistors, then microchips, which are getting smaller every day. This architecture, which supports our modern lifestyles, was all made possible with Boole’s mathematics.

4. Philosophy and logic

Many philosophers over the course of centuries attempted to find a way to symbolise and formalise the principles of logical thought. In his books, Boole managed to do something Aristotle would find commendable, and he was himself aware of the magnitude of his discovery.

In 1851, he wrote: “I am now about to set seriously to work upon preparing for the press an account of my theory of logic and probabilities, which in its present state I look upon as the most valuable if not the only valuable contribution that I have made or am likely to make to science and the thing by which I would desire if at all to be remembered hereafter.”

In fact, there may have been more to come on this matter from Boole, as a number of manuscripts discovered after his death revealed the possibility of another book on his discoveries in logic and how they informed his personal view of philosophy.

5. Education

George Boole opened his first school in Lincoln before he even reached the age of 20.

His own education had been unconventional and he was an innovator in the classroom, introducing a blackboard and physical props such as cones, pyramids and spheres in the teaching of arithmetic and mensuration.

He was forward-thinking and, at a time when teaching began with general rules and then moved on to particulars, Boole advocated 21st-century-style models where the particulars come first. He also wasn’t a fan of learning by rote and wrote in the prospectus of the Waddington Academy in 1838: “The pupil is required to commit nothing to memory before it is understood.”

6. Arts and literature

Boole was, in essence, the very definition of a polymath. Though renowned for his mathematical and scientific prowess, his contribution to the arts was no less significant.

As a child, Boole was fascinated by literature and the structure of language. He mastered Latin by the age of 12, taught himself Greek and, in his spare time, taught himself French, German and Italian.

Boole was a, at times, prolific poet – he was a die-hard fan of the medium – writing on subjects as diverse as religion, the classics and friendship until 1849, when he received his appointment at what was then known as Queen’s College Cork.

Boole also showed long-cultivated interests in photography and music.

Boole’s diverse focus was formalised in 1850 when he was tapped as a member of the Cuvierian Society. According to GeorgeBoole.com, the Cuvierian society promoted ‘a friendly intercourse between persons who feel a pleasure in the cultivation of science, literature and the fine arts’.

Additional reporting by Kirsty Tobin and Elaine Burke

Algebra on a blackboard image by Gregory Johnston via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic