George Boole

  • By John Yafi
  • November 1, 2015
  • 18

Isaac Newton, Wikipedia tells us, “is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution.”  George Boole(1815-1864) was undoubtedly also one of the most influential scientists of all time, and a key figure in the digital revolution.  Both men were from Lincolnshire, England, and had Unitarian leanings, which impacted their career paths in the Anglican dominated world of their eras.
Furthermore, both made key mental breakthroughs while enjoying fresh air outdoors.

Newton’s Eureka, or Aha! Moment, was his celebrated musing on falling apples, in 1666 when he was 23, which in due course inspired his development of the theory of gravitation. Boole’s came early in 1833, when he was only 17, while walking across a field in Doncaster:

“He relates that the thought flashed upon him suddenly [], but he laid it aside for many years []. The thought however smouldered in his subconscious and became an integral part of his main ambition is life—to explain the logic of human thought [].”

So reports mathematician Des MacHale in his biography The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age (Cork University Press, 2014).  MacHale writes that this was when “Boole first contemplated the ideas which were to grow into his major contribution to mathematics—the expression of logical relations in symbolic or algebraic form. “ He adds that while it would be another decade before Boole refined his ideas and published his first work on symbolic logic, “Boole referred to the incident many times in later life and seems to have regarded himself as cast in an almost messianic role.”

Boolean algebra and Boolean logic are very well known today, and form the backbone of electrical engineering and computer science. Indeed anyone who even casually searches the Internet , say for “Michael Jackson” the late beer and whiskey expert rather than the singer and dancer of the same name, knows how to make judicious use of AND, OR and NOT.

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