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The Story of Carl Friedrich Gauss

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Businesspersons, musicians, actors / actresses, sportspersons, and politicians often gain the most fame. Mathematicians are much less known and yet their contributions to so many aspects of our lives are often more fundamental. The work of mathematicians underpins how our modern world works. Mathematics is behind how to make computers function, ensure that electricity is generated, have satellite and TV signals transmitted, and how our securities markets function.

E. T. Bell, the famous biographer called Carl Friedrich Gauss “The Prince of Mathematicians”. Gauss made contributions in both pure and applied mathematics and his work was used by many scientists, including Einstein when he developed his general theory of relativity. The name “Gauss” is given to the unit of the magnetic field in honor of his insightful work. 

We are lucky that Gauss was able to pursue mathematics. Gauss was born to extremely poor parents in Germany in 1777. His paternal grandfather and father worked as gardeners and general laborers. E. T. Bell writes that Gauss’s father “did everything in his power to thwart his young son from acquiring an education”. Gauss’s father wanted Gauss to start earning a living by manual work as soon as he was capable. 

It was Gauss’s mother (who was illiterate) who saved Gauss from a life of manual work. She overcame her husband’s objections and ensured Gauss obtained a basic education, and this was enough for the brilliant Gauss to then take off into the heights of mathematical investigations. Gauss was forever grateful to his mother and for the last 22 years of her life, by when she had become blind, she lived in Gauss’ house where he took care of her till she died at the age of ninety-seven.

Gauss showed his brilliance from his earliest childhood. Gauss taught himself to read, had a photographic memory, and was also a calculating genius who could do large complex calculations in his mind. There is a story of Gauss’ school teacher, when Gauss was 10 years old, giving the students the task of adding the numbers from 1 to 100. Hardly had the teacher explained the problem that Gauss shouted out the answer. The teacher was so impressed that he began to buy the poor Gauss mathematics textbooks, which Gauss quickly devoured. Soon Gauss knew much more mathematics than the teacher. The teacher said, “He is beyond me, I can teach him nothing more.” 

The local ruler, the Duke of Brunswick, sponsored Gauss’s studies in college and the University of Göttingen where he remained working on mathematics for most of his life. 

Gauss married his first wife in 1805 and had three children with her. Unfortunately, Gauss’s first wife died young. Even though Gauss married a second time and had three more children, he never forgot his first wife to whom he was most attached. 

Gauss was eccentric and kept secret many of his discoveries. He did not want fame and was simply happy to have gained knowledge. When he died in 1855, aged 78, and all his mathematical papers and diaries were finally publicized, the breadth and depth of his discoveries were astonishing and equivalent to the life work of many mathematicians put together. Gauss summarized his views on learning and studying as, “It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment.”

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Many readers might be afraid of mathematics or feel that they just cannot grasp or enjoy calculus or probability theory. However, mathematical patterns govern our world; while making investments as much as in human affairs, and everyone can learn the basics of higher mathematics. Readers are referred to the advice given by Silvanus Thompson at the start of his book on “Calculus Made Easy”. Thompson wrote, “What one fool can do, another can”! 

Learning a little advanced mathematics will allow us to gaze in wonder at some of Gauss’s most beautiful findings.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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