Carl Friedrich Gauss
1777 - 1855
Prince of Mathematicsby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Over the years, dozens of mathematicians have used their skills to further the mathematic and scientific worlds, but none have done it with such skill, quantity and quality as Carl Friedrich Gauss, a German born school boy who went from being a boy genius to being the one of the world's greatest mathematicians. Gauss was born to a bricklayer by the name of Gebhard Gauss on April 30th, 1777, in Brunswick, Germany. From an early age he showed signs that he was not just a “normal boy“. While most children can not even read or write, much less do math by age 6 - Gauss was adding numbers and spotting errors in his father's arithmetic when he was three. At age 7 he had devised a trick for adding consecutive numbers quickly, and in seconds was able to tell his teacher the sum of all the numbers from 1 up to 100. Gauss's skills went beyond just mathematical computation. Coming from a poor family they were not able to afford candles by which Gauss could study at night. Gauss used a cloth and hallowed-out turnip that was filled with fat to make a candle of out them. Unfortunately for Gauss, his father did not recognize his genius right away. It took the school teacher and a few of his associates to convince Herr Gauss that his son was no ordinary boy. As his name grew in the area and he kept up his studying, the Duke of Brunswick heard about him. When Gauss was 15 the Duke summoned him to his castle. It was there that Gauss formed a lasting friendship with the Duke and received a stipend that allowed him to go to college and to devote his time to studying.
For the next 4 years Gauss spent his time learning at Caroline College. Even while studying, Gauss was formulating many of the important theorems he would later go on to prove. However, the library at Caroline College was quite poor and Gauss did not have easy access to large supplies of mathematical books and papers. Because of this, he actually rediscovered many theorems. All of this changed in 1795 when he left Caroline and moved to Gottingen to continue his research and studying. Gottingen's library was massive and immensely helpful to Gauss's works. While in Gottingen, Gauss discovered many of his greatest theorems and ideas. These included the proof of quadratic reciprocity in 1795 and the construction of a 17-gon with only a straight edge and a compass in 1796. So fruitful was his time that his only limitation was the twenty-four hour day.
Gauss returned to Brunswick in 1799 and it was there that he got a doctorate for his proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic in 1801. In the same year, Gauss turned some of his attention to astronomy. With his mathematical skills he correctly predicted the appearance of the comet Ceres. This prediction brought him even more fame, and he was soon appointed to a post as an astronomer at Gottigen Observatory. Also in 1801, Gauss published Disquisitiones Arithmeticae. This work which contained many of his proofs at the time made his name in mathematical circles both in Germany and around the globe even more prominent. Unfortunately for the mathematical world, Gauss believed in "pauca sed matura" - “few but ripe“. This mind made him publish only a fraction of his works, leaving the rest to be lost or discovered by another mathematician at a later time.
For the next 50 years, Gauss explored countless branches of mathematics and accomplished more than anyone could possibly dream. He explored topics such as physics, non-Euclidean geometry, differential geometry and statistics. Gauss even figured out his own birthday, which his mother had forgotten long ago, by using just the fact that he was born 8 days before Easter in 1777. Outside of the mathematical realm, he continued his studies in astronomy and spent hours reading newspapers and studying politics.
Although his mathematical career was quite successful, Gauss suffered many setbacks on the home front. They began when his friend and supporter, the Duke of Brunswick, was killed when leading an army against the oncoming horde of Napoleon. Within the next few years, his newlywed wife, his father, his uncle, and many other close companions, including a second wife some years later, all died. These losses were hard on Gauss, who spent much of his time either studying in isolation or with a few other mathematicians. As time went on, Gauss's cheerfulness became less and less noticeable. He simply plodded through life, exploring what interested him. Because the death of the Duke meant the loss of his funding, he had to rely on friends to share with him book, bed and workspace.
Gauss died on the 23rd of February, 1855, after suffering from several heart attacks. On his death bed he requested that one of his greatest works, the construction of the 17-gon, be inscribed his the tomb stone. The gravestone carvers declared that it would look too much like a circle when chiseled in, and thus instead the 17-gon was placed on a monument in honor of Gauss - the man who for 80 years captivated the mathematical world with his brilliance. Gauss was a humble man who on many an occasion gave due thanks to God for his skills or for his intuition on a proof, At the same time, however, he also discredited many a proof by fellow mathematicians of the time, saying that he had solved it first and just not bothered to publish it. Often referred to as the "Prince of Mathematics", Carl Friedrich Gauss was once quoted saying, "There have been only three epoch-making mathematicians: Archimedes, Newton and Eisenstein". Whether he truly believed this or it was his humble nature showing through, Gauss was wrong. There have been four.
Savitt, David. The Mathematics of Gauss. Unpublished notes, available at: http://www.math.mcgill.ca/~dsavitt/papers/
Of Men and Numbers by Jane Muir. 1st edition 196. Current edition 1996