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Encyclopedia > Carl Gauss
Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss

Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (Gauß) (April 30, 1777 _ February 23, 1855) was a legendary German mathematician, astronomer and physicist with a very wide range of contributions; he is considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.

(His name rhymes with "house", and is sometimes spelled Gauß in German.)



Early years

Gauss was born in Braunschweig, Duchy of Germany) as the only son of lower-class uneducated parents. According to legend, his genius became apparent at the age of three, when he corrected, in his head, an error his father had made on paper while calculating finances. It is also said that while in elementary school, his teacher tried to occupy pupils by making them add up the (whole) numbers from 1 to 100. A few seconds later, to the astonishment of all, the young Gauss produced the correct answer, having realized that pairwise addition of terms from opposite ends of the list yielded identical intermediate sums: 1+100=101, 2+99=101, 3+98=101, etc., for a total sum of 50 × 101 = 5050. (see: summation)

Gauss earned a scholarship and in college, he independently rediscovered several important theorems; his breakthrough occurred in 1796 when he was able to show that any regular polygon, each of whose odd factors are distinct Fermat primes, can be constructed by ruler and compass alone, thereby adding to work started by classical Greek mathematicians. Gauss was so pleased by this result that he requested that a regular 17-gon be inscribed on his tombstone.

Gauss was the first to prove the fundamental theorem of algebra; in fact, he produced four entirely different proofs for this theorem over his lifetime, clarifying the concept of complex number considerably along the way.

Middle years

Gauss also made important contributions to number theory with his 1801 book Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, which contained a clean presentation of modular arithmetic and the first proof of the law of quadratic reciprocity.

He had been supported by a stipend from the Duke of Brunswick, but he did not appreciate the insecurity of this arrangement and also did not believe mathematics to be important enough to deserve support; he therefore aimed for a position in astronomy, and in 1807 he was appointed professor of astronomy and director of the astronomical observatory in Göttingen.

In 1809, Gauss published a major work about the motion of celestial bodies. Among other things, he introduced the gaussian gravitational constant. It also contains an influential treatment of the method of least squares, a procedure used in all sciences to this day to minimize the impact of measurement error. He was able to prove the correctness of the method under the assumption of normally distributed errors; see Gauss-Markov theorem; see also Gaussian. The method had been described earlier by Adrien_Marie Legendre in 1805, but Gauss claimed that he had been using it since 1795.

Gauss discovered the possibility of non-Euclidean geometries but never published it. His friend Farkos Wolfgang Bolyai had tried in vain for many years to prove the parallel postulate from Euclid's other axioms of geometry and failed. Bolyai's son, János Bolyai, rediscovered non-Euclidean geometry in the 1820s; his work was published in 1832.

In 1818, Gauss started a geodesic survey of the state of Hanover, work which later led to the development of the normal distribution for describing measurement errors and an interest in differential geometry and his theorema egregrium establishing an important property of the notion of curvature.

Later years, death, and afterwards

Bust of C. F. Gauss

In 1831, a fruitful collaboration with the physics professor Wilhelm Weber developed, leading to results about magnetism, the discovery of Kirchhoff's laws in electricity and the construction of a primitive telegraph.

He died in Göttingen, Hanover (now Germany) in 1855 and is interred in the cemetery Albanifriedhof there.

From 1989 until the end of 2001, his portrait and a normal distribution curve were featured on the German ten-mark banknote.

Personal life

Although Gauss never worked as a professor of mathematics and disliked teaching, several of his students turned out to be influential mathematicians, among them Richard Dedekind and Bernhard Riemann.

Gauss was deeply religious and conservative. He supported monarchy and opposed Napoleon whom he saw as an outgrowth of revolution. Gauss' personal life was overshadowed by the early death of his beloved first wife, Johanna Osthoff, in 1809, soon followed by the death of one child, Louis. Gauss plunged into a depression from which he never fully recovered. He married again, to Friederica Wilhelmine Waldeck (Minna), but the second marriage does not seem to have been very happy. When his second wife died in 1831 after long illness, one of his daughters, Therese, took over the household and cared for Gauss until the end of his life. His mother lived in his house from 1812 until her death in 1839. He rarely if ever collaborated with other mathematicians and was considered aloof and austere by many.

Gauss had six children, three by each wife. With Johanna (1780-1809), his children were Joseph (1806-1873), Wilhelmina (1808-1846) and Louis (1809-1810). Of all of Gauss' children, Wilhelmina was said to have come closest to his talent, but regrettably, she died young. With Minna Waldeck, he had three children: Eugene (1811-1896), Wilhelm (1813_1879) and Therese (1816-1864). Eugene immigrated to the United States about 1832 after a falling out with his father, eventually settling in St. Charles, Missouri, where he became a well respected member of the community. Wilhelm came to settle in Missouri somewhat later, starting as a farmer and later becoming wealthy in the shoe business in St. Louis. Therese kept house for Gauss until his death, after which she married.

G. Waldo Dunnington was a life-long student of Gauss. He wrote many articles, and a biography: Carl Frederick Gauss: Titan of Science. This book was re-issued in 2003, after having been out of print for almost 50 years.

Gauss is said to have claimed, "There have been only three epoch-making mathematicians: Archimedes, Newton, and Eisenstein". Gauss's choice of Eisenstein, who specialized in analysis, seemed strange to many, but Gauss may have thought that had Eisenstein lived longer, he would have fulfilled his true potential.

See also

Further reading

  • Simmons, J, The giant book of scientists -- The 100 greatest minds of all time, Sydney: The Book Company, (1996)
  • Dunnington, G. Waldo, Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science, The Mathematical Association of America; (June 2003)

External links

  • Carl Friedrich Gauss (http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Vines/2977/gauss/english.html), comprehensive site including biography and list of his accomplishments
  • MacTutor biography of Gauss (http://www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Gauss.html)
  • Carl Frederick Gauss (http://www.mathsong.com/cfgauss), site by Gauss' great-great-great grandaughter, including a scanned letter written to his son, Eugene, and links to his genealogy.
  • Gauss and His Children (http://www.gausschildren.org), site for Gauss researchers and descendants of Gauss.
  • Gauss (http://www.gauss.info), general information, submit your site about Gauss.


  Results from FactBites:
Carl Friedrich Gauss - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2674 words)
Gauss was a child prodigy, of whom there are many anecdotes pertaining to his astounding precocity while a mere toddler, and made his first ground-breaking mathematical discoveries while still a teenager.
Gauss predicted correctly the position at which it could be found again, and it was rediscovered by Franz Xaver von Zach on December 31, 1801 in Gotha, and one day later by Heinrich Olbers in Bremen.
Gauss was an ardent perfectionist and a hard worker.
PlanetMath: Gauss, Carl Friedrich (825 words)
Carl Friedrich Gauss was born in Braunschweig on April the 30th 1777 as the son of a poor worker.
Gauss also worked on the theory of magnetism and found a representation for the unit of magnetism by the units of mass, length and time.
Gauss mourned over her very much and it was more due to a feeling of duty and sympathy that he took his wife's best friend Minna as his second wife.
  More results at FactBites »



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