Tuesday, November 10, 2015 [Tweets] [Favorites]

George Boole: a 200-Year View

Stephen Wolfram:

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole. In our modern digital world, we’re always hearing about “Boolean variables”—1 or 0, true or false. And one might think, “What a trivial idea! Why did someone even explicitly need to invent it?” But as is so often the case, there’s a deeper story—for Boolean variables were really just a side effect of an important intellectual advance that George Boole made.

When George Boole came onto the scene, the disciplines of logic and mathematics had developed quite separately for more than 2000 years. And George Boole’s great achievement was to show how to bring them together, through the concept of what’s now called Boolean algebra. And in doing so he effectively created the field of mathematical logic, and set the stage for the long series of developments that led for example to universal computation.

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It is something of an irony that George Boole, committed as he was to the methods of algebra, calculus and continuous mathematics, should have come to symbolize discrete variables. But to be fair, this took a while. In the decades after he died, the primary influence of Boole’s work on logic was on the wave of abstraction and formalization that swept through mathematics—involving people like Frege, Peano, Hilbert, Whitehead, Russell and eventually Gödel and Turing. And it was only in 1937, with the work of Claude Shannon on switching networks, that Boolean algebra began to be used for practical purposes.

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