Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss: Why Google honours him today

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Born 241 years ago on April 30, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss is often described as the “Prince of Mathematicians” and hailed for his contributions to number theory, geometry, probability theory and astronomy.

In the German mathematician’s honour, Google is changing its logo in 28 countries to a doodle of him and his achievements.

This is his story: 

Prodigy child   

  • Gauss was born in 1777 in Brunswick to poor, working-class parents. 

  • His mother, who was illiterate, never recorded her son’s birthday. However, she recalled that he had been born on a Wednesday, eight days after the Feast of Ascension, 40 days after Easter.

  • So, Gauss used that information to determine his birthday, developing his own algorithm for working out the date of Easter anytime in the 1700s or 1800s.

  • His father worked as a gardener and was regarded as an upright, honest man. However, he was known for being harsh and for discouraging his son from attending school. 
  • Gauss’s mother, instead, recognised his talents and knew that he must develop his intelligence through education. 

  • He was described as a child prodigy, and he often said he could count before he could talk. At the age of seven, he is believed to have amused his teachers by summing the integers from one to 100 almost instantly.  

  • And while still a teenager, he became the first person to prove the Law of Quadratic Reciprocity, a maths theory that consists in determining whether quadratic equations can be solved.

  • By the age of 15, his reputation had reached the Duke of Brunswick, and in 1791 he granted him financial assistance to continue his education. 






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Disquisitiones Artimeticae 

  • He was undecided on whether to devote his life to mathematics or philology. He decided his passion was in mathematics, particularly arithmetic, for him, “mathematics is the queen of sciences and arithmetic is the queen of mathematics.”

  • Gauss’s first significant discovery was that a regular polygon of 17 sides can be constructed by ruler and compass alone. This was done through analysis of the factorisation of polynomial equations – a revelation that opened the door to other theories. 

  • By the time he was 21, he had written a textbook on number theory, Disquisitiones Artimeticae. The text is widely credited for paving the way for modern number theory as we know it.  Among other things, it introduced the symbol for congruence.

  • His work established him as the era’s preeminent mathematician, and first in the German-speaking world.

  • Gauss summarised his views on the pursuit of knowledge in a letter dated September 2, 1808, as follows:

  • “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.”

It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment

Gauss

 Deep depression  

  • Gauss married in 1805 to Johanna Osthoff and had two children with her. She died four years later, and the couple’s youngest child, Louis, died the year after. 
  • After his wife’s death, Gauss went into a depression from which he never fully recovered. 

  • In 1810, Gauss married Minna Waldeck, his first wife’s best friend, and had three more children with her. She took over the household and cared for him and his family. 

Electromechanical telegraph 

  • In 1831, Gauss developed a working relationship with Wilhelm Weber, leading to new knowledge in magnetism and the discovery of Kirchhoff’s circuit laws in electricity.

  • They constructed the first electromechanical telegraph in 1833, and later both founded the “Magnetischer Verein”, an observatory which supported measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field in many regions of the world. 

  • During his life, Gauss had excellent health and strong constitution. He was never seriously ill, but in the last two years of his life he suffered from insomnia and several other ailments due to his age. 

  • He was a victim of a heart attack and died on February 23, 1855, surrounded by relatives and friends. 

  • Gauss’s brain was preserved and studied by Rudolf Wagner, who found its mass to be slightly above average. Highly developed convolutions were also found,  which in the early 20th century was suggested as an explanation of his genius. 

Honours 

  • After his death, the mathematician was widely honoured. Many streets were named after him.

  • In Gottingen, there is the Gauss-Weber monument in honour of their invention of the telegraph.

  • Berlin’s Postdam bridge also features a monument to Gauss.

  • His centenary was widely celebrated in Germany on April 30, 1877. 

  • From 1989 through 2011, Gauss’s portrait was featured on the German 10-mark banknote. Germany has also issued three postage stamps honouring him. One appeared in 1955 on the 100 anniversary of his death. 

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