George Boole’s Birthday

The Maths History feed on Twitter reminded me that the second of November is the birthday of George Boole, one of a handful of people who’s managed to get a critically important computer data type named for him (others, of course, include Arthur von Integer and the Lady Annabelle String). Reminded is the wrong word; actually, I didn’t have any idea when his birthday was, other than that it was in the first half of the 19th century. To that extent I was right (it was 1815).

He’s famous, to the extent anyone in mathematics who isn’t Newton or Leibniz is, for his work in logic. “Boolean algebra” is even almost the default term for the kind of reasoning done on variables that may have either of exactly two possible values, which match neatly to the idea of propositions being either true or false. He’d also publicized how neatly the study of logic and the manipulation of algebraic symbols could parallel one another, which is a familiar enough notion that it takes some imagination to realize that it isn’t obviously so.

Boole also did work on linear differential equations, which are important because differential equations are nearly inevitably the way one describes a system in which the current state of the system affects how it is going to change, and linear differential equations are nearly the only kinds of differential equations that can actually be exactly solved. (There are some nonlinear differential equations that can be solved, but more commonly, we’ll find a linear differential equation that’s close enough to the original. Many nonlinear differential equations can also be approximately solved numerically, but that’s also quite difficult.)

His MacTutor History of Mathematics biography notes that Boole (when young) spent five years trying to teach himself differential and integral calculus — money just didn’t allow for him to attend school or hire a tutor — although given that he was, before the age of fourteen, able to teach himself ancient Greek I can certainly understand his supposition that he just needed the right books and some hard work. Apparently, at age fourteen he translated a poem by Meleager — I assume the poet from the first century BCE, though MacTutor doesn’t specify; there was also a Meleager who was briefly king of Macedon in 279 BCE, and another some decades before that who was a general serving Alexander the Great — so well that when it was published a local schoolmaster argued that a 14-year-old could not possibly have done that translation. He’d also, something I didn’t know until today, married Mary Everest, niece of the fellow whose name is on that tall mountain.