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Jan Łukasiewicz

Jan Łukasiewicz

21 December 1878 – 13 February 1956

“One of the greatest scientists and minds of the 20th century”

The UCD School of Computer Science building was previously named after Jan Łukasiewicz, the Polish logician, mathematician and philosopher, much admired in Poland but less known in Ireland.

Łukasiewicz was born in 1878 in the city of Lviv, in what is now western Ukraine. Historically a Polish city, Lviv was then called Lemberg and was part of Austria. During his lifetime, Lviv changed hands between Austria-Hungary, Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union. 

He was a brilliant student who excelled at school and university, where he studied law, then mathematics and was awarded his doctorate in philosophy in 1902. He pursued an academic career in Lviv (then Lwów), Berlin, Louvain and Warsaw, leaving the university in 1918 to become Minister of Education in Poland before returning to academia. He joined the army in 1920 where his mathematical skills were used in deciphering Bolshevik ciphers. During the interwar years he built a distinguished reputation in the field of mathematical logic, developing his ideas, publishing and winning many awards and honours. After 1939 and the outbreak of WW2, his life was disrupted as Germany invaded Poland and closed the university. In 1943 Łukasiewicz and his wife Regina Barwińska moved to Münster in western Germany to escape the impending invasion of Warsaw by the Russians. In 1945 he was teaching logic in Germany and Brussels, living in a camp for displaced persons, while looking for somewhere safe to make a new life. 

He and Regina came to Ireland in 1946 at the invitation of then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera (a former mathematics teacher) who was keen to bring Polish academics to Ireland to boost Ireland’s scientific community. His name was one of several academics suggested to the the Taoiseach by two UCD scholars. 

In 1946 Łukasiewicz was appointed Professor of Mathematical Logic at the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), where he gave lectures. He also lectured at Queen’s University, Belfast and at UCD where he lectured on Aristotle’s syllogistic, on which he published his first book in English in 1951. His first language was Polish and he only learned English when he knew he was coming to Ireland. They lived in Dublin until his death in 1956. There is a small plaque on the house at 57 Fitzwilliam Square where he lived, to mark the fact.

Reverse Polish Notation

His main contribution to science was in multi-valued logics, but what he is famous for is Reverse Polish Notation, which every Computer Science student learns. Often parentheses are required to clarify the meaning of an expression, e.g. 3 + 5 * 7 is not the same as (3 + 5) * 7. Reverse Polish Notation allows you to write expressions without parentheses:

(3 + 5) * 7 in RPN is * + 3 5 7

3 + 5 * 7 in RPN is + 3 * 5 7

Whilst not too exciting at the time, this contribution became invaluable with the advent of digital computers, and in the development of computer science and information technology.

Last resting place

In November 2022 at the request of the Armenian Polish community, his remains were removed from Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin for repatriation to Poland, where his distinguished contribution to science and to Poland is admired. His dream was for his final resting place to be Lviv, where he was born, or in Warsaw, where he now rests in Old Powązki Cemetery.

An exhibition on the life of Prof. Jan Łukasiewicz is currently running at the Royal Irish Academy, presented by the Polish Embassy in Dublin.

12 October until 23 December 23, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2

Free exhibition no booking required, open Mon-Fri from 10:00-13:00; 14:00-17:00

Published 29.11.22

UCD School of Computer Science

University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland, D04 V1W8.
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