Evgeny Khukhro: George Boole exhibition opens in Lincoln

From Algebra in Lincoln, a blog maintained by Evgeny Khukhro:

An exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of George Boole simultaneously opened in University of Lincoln http://library.lincoln.ac.uk/news/2015/07/06/george-boole-exhibition/ and in University College Cork, Ireland. The launch event in the University of Lincoln Library on 16 July was attended by Professor Alexandre Borovik, a Trustee of the London Mathematical Society, which awarded a “Local Heroes” grant for support of the exhibition in the University of Lincoln and Lincoln Cathedral. A short speech by Professor  Borovik can be found here: http://education.lms.ac.uk/2015/07/george-booleglobal-hero/ . The exhibition was formally opened by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor  Scott Davidson (who, by the way, mentioned how people in Law Department., when using one of the first computerized databases in 1980s, had to learn Boolean “and”, “or”, “not” and bracket arrangements). The University Librarian Ian Snowley outlined the story behind the exhibition and thanked all the parties contributing to its success.

Professor Alexandre Borovik

Professor Alexandre Borovik (speaking) and Professor Scott Davidson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln

The Exhibition

The Exhibition

The LMS corner at the Exhibition

The LMS corner at the Exhibition

Professor A. Borovik, a Trustee of the LMS; University Librarian Ian Snowley; Dr Mark Hocknull, Canon Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral; Professor Scott Davidson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Professor Alexandre Borovik, a Trustee of the LMS; Ian Snowley, University Librarian ; Dr Mark Hocknull, Canon Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral; Professor Scott Davidson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln


George Boole, Global Hero

[A.Borovik, Talk at the opening of the The Life and Legacy of George Boole exhibition in Lincoln, 16 July 2015.]

I am privileged to take part in this celebration and I am honored to represent the London Mathematical Society.

The LMS was founded 150 years ago by Augustus De Morgan, a colleague and close friend of George Boole, just a year after Boole’s untimely death. The Society continues the work started by mathematicians of George Boole’s circle.

Some people say that mathematicians are remote from everyday life.

George Boole was not.

Here, in Lincoln, he taught at the Mechanics Institute, fought for the improvement of working conditions of shop workers, founded a building society.

His famous book An Investigation of the Laws of Thought was very down-to-earth, it was a textbook of practical thinking. It was written for humans, not for machines—after all, computers remained non-existent for another century.

Let us take a look at his famous definition of the universe of discourse – a concept that you will immediately recognise as obvious, everyone-knows-it kind of things – but which was new, fresh, and perhaps paradoxical in Boole’s time:

In every discourse, whether of the mind conversing with its own thoughts, or of the individual in his intercourse with others, there is an assumed or expressed limit within which the subjects of its operation are confined.

The most unfettered discourse is that in which the words we use are understood in the widest possible application, and for them the limits of discourse are co-extensive with those of the universe itself.

But more usually we confine ourselves to a less spacious field.

Sometimes, in discoursing of men we imply (without expressing the limitation) that it is of men only under certain circumstances and conditions that we speak, as of civilized men, or of men in the vigour of life, or of men under some other condition or relation.

Now, whatever may be the extent of the field within which all the objects of our discourse are found, that field may properly be termed the universe of discourse.

In short,

  • The laws of thought are global; but
  • they are applied locally, for example, at a board meeting of a building society.

Please notice George Boole’s words:

we imply (without expressing the limitation)  …

This is his warning against undeclared assumptions that can poison the discourse, his warning against

  • hidden bias,
  • hidden prejudice,
  • hidden phobia,
  • hidden hatred.

Boole’s time was the era of tectonic shifts in technology, in economy, and in social life.

The need for practical logic for everyday use, logic freed from medieval scholasticism, logic accessible to everyman—was in the air of the epoch.

The great contemporary of George Boole, Abraham Lincoln, used in his political writings and speeches the implicit logic of the Euclidean geometry:

One would start with confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms.

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.

And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success.
One dashingly calls them `glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them `self-evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only `to superior races’.

From these two quotes, it is hard to avoid the impression that both Boole and Lincoln were thinking in terms of what we now call “human rights”.

It is also difficult to avoid the feeling that for Boole and Lincoln, Logic was the Logic for the Masses; it was

  • Logic for Personal Empowerment,
  • Logic for Social Advancement,
  • Logic for Liberation.

Abraham Lincoln re-used mathematical thinking of classical geometry dated 2 millennia back in time.

But George Boole took an audacious step into the future. He created a new logic and a new mathematical symbolism which supported it.

He extracted the most basic and fundamental laws of thought, so simple that they are now used by computers. Everyone in this room has a mobile phone; in every mobile phone, microchips contain millions of logical gates carrying out millions of Boolean operations per second.

By discovering the algebra of thought – now implemented in computers and electronic devices all around us – Boole changed the course of human civilization.

George Boole is a global hero.

But he wouldn’t become a global hero, if he was not a local hero here – in Lincoln.

His life and work are the best justification of the dictum:

Think globally – act locally!


Acknowledgements. I use this opportunity to say my thanks to everyone involved in setting-up of the two consecutive exhibitions in Lincoln, in the University of Lincoln and in the glorious Lincoln Cathedral. My special thanks go to Ian Slowley, Mark Hocknull, Dave Kenyon, and Eugene Khukhro.

Disclaimer: The author writes in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent position of his employer or any other person, organisation or institution.

Homeschooling in England

An important legal case reported by the BBC on 16 July 2015:

Council drops home education case

Merryn Hutchings,  Exam Factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people. Report for NUT Full text.

From the summary:

Professor Hutchings finds that:

  • The Government’s aims of bringing about an increased focus on English/literacy and maths/numeracy and (in secondary schools) academic subjects, has been achieved at the cost of narrowing the curriculum that young people receive.

  • Recent accountability changes mean that in some cases secondary schools are entering pupils for academic examinations regardless of aptitudes or interests. This is contributing to disaffection and poor behaviour among some pupils.

  • The amount of time spent on creative teaching, investigation, play, practical work and reading has reduced considerably and there is now a tendency towards standardised lesson formats. Pupils questioned for this study, however, say that they learn better when lessons are memorable.

  • Teachers are witnessing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems amongst pupils, particularly around exam time. This is prevalent in secondary schools but also in primaries.

  • Pupils of every age are under pressure to learn things for which they are not ready, leading to shallow learning for the test and children developing a sense of ‘failure’ at a younger and younger age.

  • Pupils’ increased attainment scores in tests are not necessarily reflected in an improvement in learning across the piece. Teaching can be very narrowly focused on the test.

  • The Government and Ofsted’s requirement that schools target pupils on Free School Meals with Pupil Premium money is prompting some schools to take the focus away from special educational needs (SEN) children. Accountability is discouraging schools from including SEN children in activities targeted at Free School Meals children even when children with SEN need the support more.

  • Accountability measures disproportionately affect disadvantaged pupils and those with SEN or disabilities. Teachers report that these children are more likely to be withdrawn from lessons to be coached in maths and English at the expense of a broad curriculum. Furthermore, some schools are reluctant to take on pupils in these categories as they may lower the school’s attainment figures. Ofsted grades are strongly related to the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school.

  • Ofsted is not viewed as supportive. It is seen as punitive and inconsistent, with the ability to cause a school to “fall apart”. In their analysis of a school, the inspectors also have a tendency not to take on board the way that individual circumstances affect outcomes.

  • The legacy effect of past Ofsted requirements means that these practices are still “drilled in” despite no longer being measured or required. These include the focus on marking of pupils’ work in a standardised manner and the monitoring of lesson structure.