Thursday, October 28, 2010

George Boole: history worth saving

Workers remove roof tiles from the building on 28th October 2010

On Thursday last, I posted a piece on the condition of George Boole's former home in Cork City, number 5, Grenville Place. Today, workers and engineers have moved in to remove the slates from the building (pictured) and further secure it. As we await the outcome of deliberations on the future of the house, I think its useful to properly outline my feelings with regard to the building.

Firstly, I am not an engineer and cannot say for certain whether the building is salvageable or not. I also have no idea who currently owns the building so can't comment on any situation which may have led to this. What I say I base on information already in the public domain and what I see as an interested observer.

There is no doubt that the building has become increasingly run-down in recent times. That much is evident from a cursory glance to any passerby on the street. While the issues that surround this fall from grace of a once magnificent building are far from clear from this vantage point, what is crystal clear is the importance of this building from an historical, architectural and scientific point of view.

It has been suggested that this building is of lesser importance than his home at Lichfield Cottage in Blackrock, just east of Cork City as it is here that Boole moved when he married Mary Everest (niece of George Everest, the noted surveyor and also a niece of the Prof. of Greek at Queen's College Cork, where Boole was working).
It is in Blackrock that Mary and George had five daughters; Mary Ellen, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy Everest and Ethel Lilian; and it is in Blackrock that Boole died in December 1864 with , apparently, his wife throwing buckets of cold water over him on his sick-bed in a misguided attempt to cure him of pneumonia.

So, his Blackrock home is important in the Boole story but this home is not at risk. Number five, Grenville Place is the building where Boole lodged in his early years in Cork and it is here that he wrote one of his most important works, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities.

Writing in 1851, before publication of Laws of Thought he explained to Willaim Thompson (Lord Kelvin) how important this work was to him:
"I am now about to set seriously to work upon preparing for the press an account of my theory of Logic and Probabilities which in its present state I look upon as the most valuable if not the only valuable contribution that I have made or am likely to make to Science and the thing by which I would desire if at all to be remembered hereafter..."

In the preface of this, his most famous work, Boole signs off not using an address at Queen's College Cork but using his home address at number five, Grenville Place, Cork. With this honorable mention, The house at Grenville Place entered the history of science and the history of not just Ireland but also the world because the foundations that Boole laid at Grenville Place are those upon which the information technology revolution was built.

Boole is remembered as a great scientist and teacher. During the Centenary celebrations in 1954 to mark 100 years since the publication of Laws of Thought, Boole's aptitude as a lecturer were roundly praised: "the Doctor was a great man at the Blackboard", one of his former pupils had noted.

Also speaking at these celebrations was Sir Geoffrey Taylor, Boole's Grandson who noted that many in Cork at the time regarded him as "some sort of saint".

Writing in the Cork University Record in 1956, Prof. T. S. Broderick noted that "Cork has reason to be proud of Boole's association with her College. That College gave him the leisure and financial security which he so badly needed in order to carry out his work. It also gave him a friendly and sympathetic environment so important for one of his sensitive and affectionate nature...May the College always revere the memory of this great and good man".

And indeed the College does revere his memory with the magnificent stained-glass window in the Aula Maxima dedicated to the former Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Science. The University Library and a suite of lecture theatres are also named in his honour.

In recent years, there has been much handringing over the fall in numbers of students who choose to study science and in particular, mathetmatics to a higher level. Indeed, a recent report by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) revelaed that the strongest indicator for progression through third-level is the student's performance in the Leaving Certificate examinations and in particular, their performance in maths.

For computer, engineering and science courses, 60% of entrants who didn't pass higher level maths or have at least an A in ordinary level maths do not make it passed first year.

These are serious statistics and if we want to encourage young people to study science and maths we must first of all make them interesting and appealing as well as making sure those teaching the subjects are at the top of their game. However, we must also indicate to these potential students that what scientists and mathematicians do is of value to society. We must prove that we value and revere those exceptional scientists who have paved the way for the technological and educational advances that we have made in the last centuries and decades.

As we approach the bicentenary of Boole's birth in 2015, to allow the home of one of this country's greatest ever scientists to deteriorate in such a fashion does not indicate the same sort of faith in the 'knowledge economy' that is valued so highly when we talk of rebuilding this country's prospects. However, there is much interest in maintaining and restoring this important historical building. It will, no doubt, be a long process, but hopefully everyone will see that it is worth doing.

Sources and further reading:

George Boole: A Miscellany by Patrick D. Barry (1969), Cork University Press
George Boole Biography by JJ O'Connor and EF Robertson


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