Celebrate the “Prince of Mathematicians” – Johann Gauss!
Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss was born 241 years ago on April 30th in Germany, and is often praised as the “Prince of Mathematicians” for his contributions to number theory, geometry, probability theory, and astronomy.
He was born in 1777 to a mother who was illiterate and had never recorded her son’s birthday. So, after she told him everything she remembered about his birth, he learned he was born on a Wednesday, eight days after the Feast of Ascension, 40 days after Easter. Using this information, Gauss determined his birthday as well as developed an algorithm that was used in the 1700s and 1800s to determine the date of Easter.
Gauss was described as a child prodigy from an early age and he was often quoted saying he could count before he could talk. He impressed his teachers with the ability to add every single number from 1 to 100 in an instant. Then, as a teenager, he became the first person to prove the Law of Quadratic Reciprocity—a math theory determining whether quadratic equations can be solved.
The Duke of Brunswick heard of Gauss’ talents, and granted him financial assistance when Gauss was 15 to continue his education at the Collegium Corolinum in 1792, where Gauss studied modern and ancient languages.
Gauss hit a moment in his life where he wasn’t sure if he wanted to devote his life to the study of languages (philology) or mathematics. He ultimately chose mathematics, with an emphasis in arithmetic, saying “mathematics is the queen of sciences and arithmetic is the queen of mathematics.”
One of his earliest discoveries was that a regular polygon of 17 sides could be constructed by a ruler and compass alone. Even though this doesn’t sound exceptionally astounding, it is amazingly significant as he was able to unite algebra and geometry. Gauss accomplished this through the analysis of factorization of polynomial equations, which later led to several other theories being proven.
At only 21, he wrote a textbook on number theory, Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, which has been widely credited with paving the way for modern number theory as we know it. But among all of this, it also introduced the symbol for congruence.
“It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment. When I have clarified and exhausted a subject, then I turn away from it, in order to go into darkness again.”
Along with his numerous contributions to mathematics, Gauss left a large impact on the world of astronomy. At 24 years-old, Gauss found the lost dwarf planet, Ceres. The Italian monk, Giuseppe Piazzi, who discovered Ceres, was only able to observe the planet for 41 days before falling ill and losing it in the brightness of the sun.
Gauss took on the challenge of the lost planet by pouring over Piazzi’s observations of Ceres’ motion in relation to the Earth. To determine the orbit, he needed to deduce Ceres’ motion in relation to the sun. He used his mathematical skill to determine the position of Ceres at any point in time, past or future.
In 1802, French astronomers found Ceres in the exact position where Gauss predicted it would be.
Gauss continued his mathematical work by collaborating with Wilhelm Weber in 1831, leading to new knowledge in magnetism and the discovery of Kirchhoff’s circuit laws in electricity.
This partnership also produced the first electromechanical telegraph in 1833 and the “Magnetischer Verein”, an observatory which measured the Earth’s magnetic field around the world.
Gauss accumulated several honors in his life, such as being made a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, elected as a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, several monuments, his portrait was featured on the German 10-mark banknote, and a Google Doodle celebration.