Sunday, 5 August 2012
Despite the ancientness of the I Ching, the numbers 8 and 64 look quite “modern” because they tend to crop up a lot in the world of computing. This is because they’re powers of 2 (as are other geeky numbers such as 16, 32, 128, 256 etc)... and computers use binary arithmetic based on powers of two. Binary arithmetic has just two digits, 0 and 1, so it’s easier for a machine to work with than decimal arithmetic which has 10 digits. But binary arithmetic predates the advent of digital computers by more than 200 years -- Gottfried Leibniz published his “Explication de l'Arithmétique Binaire” in 1703. But Leibniz didn’t take the credit for himself -- he believed he had merely rediscovered something that had been known to Fu Xi thousands of years earlier!
Another mathematical concept that is common in the world of computing is that of Boolean logic, involving operators such as “OR” and “AND” instead of the familiar arithmetic operators such as “+” and “-”. Boolean logic is named after the 19th century mathematician George Boole, who first developed it. But whereas computer programmers use the Boolean variables “false” and “true”, Boole himself used the binary digits “0” and “1” (which of course is how modern computers encode “false” and “true” internally).
Boole was a contemporary of the Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage, but Boole had no interest whatsoever in Babbage’s calculating engines. According to Mathematics in Victorian Britain, which I reviewed for Fortean Times a few months ago, “his logic was oriented towards analysing thought, with a belief in the creative power of the mind”. Moreover “There was an important religious element in his logic. He was a Unitarian, a stance with which he associated his ‘1’, the Universe. For example, in his Laws of Thought he devoted a chapter to the analysis of two arguments; any context would have sufficed, but he chose two purported proofs of the existence of the one God.”
Boole seems to have been a bit of a mystic -- a predilection he passed on to his offspring. One of his daughters married Wifrid Voynich, the antiquarian who discovered the mysteriously Lovecraftian Voynich Manuscript in 1912. More relevant to the subject of “Esoteric Mathematics”, another of Boole’s daughters married Charles Howard Hinton: Pioneer of the Fourth Dimension -- the man who popularized the geometrical concept of the tesseract, and had a distinctly mystical view of its applications.