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Science

True or false: George Boole gave us computer science and the Internet as we know it

Self-taught mathematician George Boole was born 200 years ago. He changed the way we see and experience the world today.

There is hope for us all. George Boole, the British mathematician who was born 200 years ago today (November 2), shows you can drop out of school and still change the world… even if that change comes about seventy years after you die.

George Boole has been dubbed "the father of the digital age" - and with good reason.

Despite leaving school at an early age to earn money for his family, Boole became the first Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cork, where he published

his seminal work

on Boolean logic in 1854.

If you've ever heard people refer to "zeros" and "ones" in computer science, that's basically what this is about.

And it's about so much more. Internet search engines are based on Boolean algebra, as are the databases that build websites, and the software than runs the hardware we use to access it all.

Zeros and ones

Boolean algebra reduces mathematical variables to either yes or no, true or false, on or off, or 0 or 1.

Screenshot Google Doodle George Boole

The specially designed Google Doodle depicts "logic gates" which implement Boolean functions in computing

It's an integral data type in computer programming languages, such as Pascal and Java, and is also part of JavaScript, which along with HTML and CSS is essential to the web, Objective-C, a primary programming language for apps, and SQL (structured query language), which is used for accessing databases.

So whether you're shopping online, browsing your social media, or using some high-end software on a mobile device, you will have rubbed shoulders with Boolean logic - probably, daily.

Father of the digital age

Boole pushed mathematics and logic in ways he may well have foreseen.

Harvard IBM Mark I Computer

Howard Aiken and IBM's Harvard Mark I

At the Great London Exhibition of 1862, Boole met Charles Babbage, who had invented the Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer programmed with punch cards.

The two are said to have discussed this "thinking engine," which Babbage never completed. But it became a building block for modern computing.

In 1937, the Analytical Engine was revived by Howard Aiken, a physicist who, with funding from IBM, developed an electromechanical computer called the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC). It was renamed the Harvard Mark I.

The following year, Claude Shannon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published his masters degree thesis "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits," inspired by Boole's work on symbolic logic.

It led to the simplification of telecommunications, with major implications for circuit design in electronics.

But

George Boole

didn't live to witness these results of his work. He contracted a lung infection during a storm that raged on a 3 kilometer walk from his home to the university in Cork, and died aged 49 on December 8, 1864.

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