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Primary Magazine - Issue 21: A little bit of history

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Created on 26 February 2010 by ncetm_administrator


Primary Magazine Issue 21


A little bit of history
Famous Mathematicians - Mary Boole (1832 - 1916)

Mary Everest Boole was born in England in 1832. When she was five and her younger brother George was two, her father, Reverend Thomas Everest, moved the family to Poissy in France in order that he could be treated, through homeopathy, for a serious illness.

map of France showing Poissy

Growing up in Poissy gave Mary a chance to learn about a different culture and become fluent in French but she often found life difficult and lonely because her family’s way of life was very different to that of the French locals. Every day she and her siblings were given school lessons by their mother, which were apparently very boring! After two hours of Mrs Everest, their tutor Monsieur Deplace took over. He was the person who first introduced Mary to mathematics. She became very fond of him, his style of teaching made it easy for Mary to do well in her studies and this was something she never forgot.

His style was probably based on Rousseau's teachings from the 18th century, which led children to new concepts through writing down the answers to a series of questions. Once they had completed these the children would analyse both the questions and their answers. In this way, they came to a better understanding than they would have if they had simply been told the information, as in the more traditional methods.

The family moved back to England when Mary was eleven. Shortly afterwards she was taken out of school to become her father's assistant. She was given various tasks including teaching a Sunday School class and helping her father with his sermons.

George BooleShe didn’t mind this but also didn’t want to end her studies so she used the books in her father's library to teach herself calculus. She loved mathematics and had lots of unanswered questions about certain concepts which she found frustrating. It was when Mary, at eighteen, visited her aunt and uncle in Cork, Western Ireland, that her questions were answered. Her uncle introduced her to a famous mathematician who she spent a lot of time with, and it was he who helped her mathematical expertise to grow. His name was
George Boole.

After her return to England they stayed in touch through letter and two years later he came to England to teach her more about mathematics. He was 17 years older than her but despite the age difference they married when Mary was 23. They were very close companions and had a successful marriage. During the next nine years, Mary and George had five daughters named Mary, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy, and Ethel. Sadly, George caught pneumonia and died when their youngest child was just six months old.

After his death, Mary began teaching, women initially and then children. She followed her tutor Monsieur Deplace's method with her own additions. She believed that children should be given mathematical objects to play with and develop, at their own pace, ideas of order and pattern. She invented curve stitching, or what we call today, string geometry, to help children learn about the geometry of angles and spaces.

She was an outstanding teacher. One of Mary's pupils wrote to her saying: “I thought we were being amused not taught. But after I left I found you had given us a power. We can think for ourselves, and find out what we want to know.”

Mary believed that it was possible to express all basic notions of the universe with numbers and symbols. At the age of 50, she began writing a series of books and articles about this, publishing them regularly until the time of her death in 1916 aged 84.

Mary Everest Boole was an amazing woman who, widowed for 50 years, raised her five daughters on her own and also managed to make countless contributions towards the mathematical education of many girls and boys which can be seen in the modern classroom today.

You could have a go at some string geometry with your class. This would provide an ideal opportunity to explore fractions, shapes and angles. Why not try this one?

string geometry construction

You will need paper, scissors, pins and lengths of different coloured wool or thread.

First of all, ask the children to draw round a circle and then cut it out:

cutting out a paper circle

They then fold it in half, half again and then twice more to make 16ths:

folded paper circle with pins

Next, place it on a piece of paper, stick pins on the paper at the ends of each of the folds and then take the paper circle away:

circle of pins

Tie the end of one piece of coloured wool or thread to one of the pins. Next, create a repeating pattern wrapping the wool once around the other pins. You could wrap around every two pins, three, six or nine pins. Repeat the pattern you chose beginning at each of the other pins until you get a pattern like the one in the picture.

Barbara Hepworth made various scultures and artwork using a similar idea. See this month’s article The Art of Mathematics for some more ideas for string patterns.

Mary’s husband George is famous for his Boolean number system, which is a very complex form of algebra. Conversions of his work are often used in creating electrical circuits. If you are interested in finding out more you could watch this video.

Information sourced from:

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