Today, we enter hyperspace on a kitchen table. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Your computer depends on
Boolean logic. That's kin to the arithmetic that
admits only two numbers: 0 and 1. Binary arithmetic
doesn't go 1, 2, 3, 4. It goes 0, 1, 10, 11. The
English mathematician George Boole built his logic
on that arithmetic.
But we're interested in Boole's daughter, Alice
Boole Stott. George Boole took a professorship at
Queen's College, Cork, in 1849. Alice was born
there in 1860. When she was four, George died of
the fever and left the family with very limited
For the next 14 years, Alice lived in bad
conditions in Ireland and England. She was educated
only up to the age of 16. Then a piece of
serendipity: In 1878 a family friend brought in a
set of wooden blocks and talked with Alice about
A tesseract is a four-dimensional object. It is to
a cube what a cube is to a plane square. If you
have trouble picturing that, you can appreciate the
task Alice had taken on.
Alice went on to be a secretary -- all the time
thinking about the generalization of polygons into
four-dimensional space. In 1890 she married an
actuary of fairly modest means, Walter Stott. She
raised two children while she built wooden models
of the three-dimensional shadows cast by four
She was a housewife whose hobby was hyperspace.
Then she read a paper on those same geometric
figures by Pieter Schoute, at the Dutch University
of Groningen. So she sent photos of her models to
him. He immediately suggested they collaborate.
And they did, until he died in 1913. She published
papers in the pure math journals. After Schoute's
death, the University of Groningen asked her to its
300th anniversary celebrations. They gave her an
honorary degree -- the only degree she ever got.
Later, she showed the cylinder it came in to her
husband. "This will be a good place to keep sticks
of macaroni," she told him.
During the 1930s, now over 70, she worked on the
geometrical problems of arranging 4-dimensional
kaleidoscopes. If you think a 4-D kaleidoscope is
silliness, please think again. This kind of
mathematics plays directly into applied physics and
eventually touches practical problems in a very
Maybe Alice Stott was born with a genetic silver
spoon in her mouth. Indeed, her nephew was the
great authority on fluid flow, G.I. Taylor. More likely, though,
this family simply honored the creative process,
generation after generation.
After George Boole died, Alice's mother sold his
gold medal in math to buy a harmonium for her
children. And there I believe we see Alice Stott's
real silver spoon. She lived in a family that loved
the creative process and fed it -- any way they
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds