This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for November 2, 2017: Peace

November 2, 2017: birthday: George Boole

Today is the birthday of George Boole (1815) (books by this author), the English mathematician responsible for Boolean algebra, whose three basic operations of AND, OR and NOT, became the basis of comparing sets of things mathematically. He also composed all-important algebraic identities like: (X or Y) = (Y or X); not (not X) = X; not (X and Y) = (not X) or (not Y), which became the stuff of nightmares for many teenagers. He did all of this without a university degree, or even a particularly sturdy early education. In fact, it was his father, a tradesman, who first began teaching Boole mathematics and even taught him to make optical instruments. Without Boolean algebra, we wouldn’t have the design for basic digital computer circuits or telephone switching, the system of interconnected circuits that allows us to call each other.

George Boole was born in Lincolnshire, England. He was a precocious learner, poring over mathematics journals and Newton’s Principia. A tutor taught him Latin, and then he taught himself Greek, becoming so well versed that at 14, he published a translation of a poem by Meleager. The work was so good that a local schoolmaster declared it a fake, claiming a young person never could have done such fine work. By the time he was 19, he’d founded his own school. He later married Mary Everest, the niece of Sir George Everest, for whom the mountain is named.

Boole’s legacy lives on not only in everyday mathematics but also on the moon: the Boole crater is named for him. The keyword Bool is also a Boolean data type in programming languages, and there’s even a road called Boole Heights in Bracknell, Berkshire.

When George Boole embarked on the writing of his book An investigation into the Laws of Thought, on Which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities (1854), he wrote to a friend: “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.”