A nice lesson from a somewhat arbitrary read

Sometimes the best books are the ones you end up reading somewhat arbitrarily. A book such as this for me has been The Life and Work of George Boole: Prelude to the Digital Age by Desmond MacHale. George Boole, as you may know, is the founder of Boolean Logic and Boolean Algebra. Perhaps one of those rings a bell. In short, the mathematics he worked to develop is noted as vital to the creation of digital technology today.

George Boole

I came across this book at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland where George Boole was a professor. UCC is celebrating the bicentennial of Boole’s birth this year and came out with a new edition of this book to celebrate. I was at UCC for the European Human Resource Development (HRD) conference and thought it would be a nice break from the deluge of HRD presentations. The book is written by a mathematics professor at UCC, which made me wary of its readability. I have been pleasantly surprised by the book’s prose and in-depth research. More than that, I have learned a valuable lesson about what it means to be a scholar.

Throughout his life, George Boole had a voracious appetite for reading and was a self-directed learner. Despite being known for his work in mathematics, he was quite the generalist. When he opened his own school at age 20, he wrote, “I believe that there are very few studies so remote from each other and so unconnected that they may not in some way be made to contribute to their common furtherance” (p. 27). At a young age he taught himself history, philosophy, ancient languages, and of course math. Here is a short timeline of his life by UCC:

The most fascinating thing about his life to me was the fact that his formal education ended at age 16 and he eventually became a professor in mathematics at UCC without any formal higher education. Instead of attending university he felt obligated to work to support his family. Ultimately, he became a professor through his merit as a mathematician. He was well-connected and respected in the mathematics community in Europe at the time and his colleagues gave him strong recommendations for a university post in the new Queen College in Cork. His story of perseverance, love of learning, and passion for service is inspiring. And here’s the big takeaway for me:

George Boole’s life reminds me that a scholar is not someone with fancy degrees. Rather, a scholar is someone who curiously and passionately delves into a subject with the hopes of making contributions to knowledge in the service of others.

Isn’t it funny in life how sometimes the things we read without any obvious reason to do so end up being the more inspiring than we could have imagined?


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