On this day in 1815, the great mathematician George Boole was born. He had quite diverse interests in math, including what I consider the most interesting thing in math: differential equations. The reason for this is that differential equations are kind of like alchemy. There are no rules for solving them and only the barest of guidelines. I suppose I like this because it is so much unlike what most people think math is. It is more intuition than anything else.

Boole, however, is mostly known today for something that was highly theoretical at the time but is now intensely practical: symbolic logic, or as we say today, Boolean algebra. Boole’s system was quite complex. His main interest was in mapping logic onto an algebraic formalism. What we use today are the ideas of AND (∧) and OR (∨) and so on. The AND operator is defined as follows:

0 ∧ 0 = 0

0 ∧ 1 = 0

1 ∧ 0 = 0

1 ∧ 1 = 1

It is remarkable just how powerful all of this is. And if I weren’t still sick, I might spend some time on it. Not that it is necessary, since you are almost certainly reading this on a computer. But it is amazing that when digital computers came into existence, all the mathematics had been worked out a century before.

Boole died young at the age of 49. Wikipedia provides a description that is both funny and pathetic. Mathematicians are not known for their practical acumen. Apparently, this is also true of their spouses:

One day in 1864, George walked two miles in the drenching rain and lectured wearing his wet clothes. He soon became ill, developing a severe cold and high fever. As his wife believed that remedies should resemble their cause, she put George to bed and poured buckets of water over him — the wet having brought on his illness. With neither spouse distinguishing good idea from bad, Boole’s condition worsened and on 8 December 1864, he died of fever-induced pleural effusion.

Happy birthday George Boole!

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