For him science was the means of exposing the immortal nucleus of the human soul. In the days of his full strength, it furnished him recreation and, by the prospects which it opened up to him, gave consolation. Toward the end of his life, it brought him confidence. Gauss' God was not a cold and distant figment of metaphysics, nor a distorted caricature of embittered theology. To man is not vouchsafed that fullness of knowledge which would warrant his arrogantly holding that his blurred vision is the full light and that there can be none other which might report the truth as does his. For Gauss, not he who mumbles his creed, but he who lives it, is accepted. He believed that a life worthily spent here on earth is the best, the only, preparation for heaven. Religion is not a question of literature, but of life. God's revelation is continuous, not contained in tablets of stone or sacred parchment. A book is inspired when it inspires. The unshakeable idea of personal continuance after death, the firm belief in a last regulator of things, in an eternal, just, omniscient, omnipotent God, formed the basis of his religious life, which harmonized completely with his scientific research.
Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss was born on 30 April 1777 in Brunswick (Braunschweig), in the Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (now part of Lower Saxony, Germany), to poor, working-class parents. His mother was illiterate and never recorded the date of his birth, remembering only that he had been born on a Wednesday, eight days before the Feast of the Ascension (which occurs 39 days after Easter). Gauss later solved this puzzle about his birthdate in the context of finding the date of Easter, deriving methods to compute the date in both past and Future years. He was christened and confirmed in a church near the school he attended as a child.
Gauss had six children. With Johanna (1780–1809), his children were Joseph (1806–1873), Wilhelmina (1808–1846) and Louis (1809–1810). With Minna Waldeck he also had three children: Eugene (1811–1896), Wilhelm (1813–1879) and Therese (1816–1864). Eugene shared a good measure of Gauss's talent in languages and computation. Therese kept house for Gauss until his death, after which she married.
Gauss's intellectual abilities attracted the attention of the Duke of Brunswick, who sent him to the Collegium Carolinum (now Braunschweig University of Technology), which he attended from 1792 to 1795, and to the University of Göttingen from 1795 to 1798. While at university, Gauss independently rediscovered several important theorems. His breakthrough occurred in 1796 when he showed that a regular polygon can be constructed by compass and straightedge if the number of its sides is the product of distinct Fermat primes and a power of 2. This was a major discovery in an important field of mathematics; construction problems had occupied mathematicians since the days of the Ancient Greeks, and the discovery ultimately led Gauss to choose mathematics instead of philology as a career. Gauss was so pleased with this result that he requested that a regular heptadecagon be inscribed on his tombstone. The stonemason declined, stating that the difficult construction would essentially look like a circle.
The year 1796 was most productive for both Gauss and number theory. He discovered a construction of the heptadecagon on 30 March. He further advanced modular arithmetic, greatly simplifying manipulations in number theory. On 8 April he became the first to prove the quadratic reciprocity law. This remarkably general law allows mathematicians to determine the solvability of any quadratic equation in modular arithmetic. The prime number theorem, conjectured on 31 May, gives a good understanding of how the prime numbers are distributed among the integers.
Gauss was a child Prodigy. A contested story relates that, when he was eight, he figured out how to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. There are many other anecdotes about his precocity while a toddler, and he made his first ground-breaking mathematical discoveries while still a teenager. He completed his magnum opus, Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, in 1798, at the age of 21—though it was not published until 1801. This work was fundamental in consolidating number theory as a discipline and has shaped the field to the present day.
In his 1799 doctorate in absentia, A new proof of the theorem that every integral rational algebraic function of one variable can be resolved into real factors of the first or second degree, Gauss proved the fundamental theorem of algebra which states that every non-constant single-variable polynomial with complex coefficients has at least one complex root. Mathematicians including Jean le Rond d'Alembert had produced false proofs before him, and Gauss's dissertation contains a critique of d'Alembert's work. Ironically, by today's standard, Gauss's own attempt is not acceptable, owing to the implicit use of the Jordan curve theorem. However, he subsequently produced three other proofs, the last one in 1849 being generally rigorous. His attempts clarified the concept of complex numbers considerably along the way.
Gauss, who was 24 at the time, heard about the Problem and tackled it. After three months of intense work, he predicted a position for Ceres in December 1801—just about a year after its first sighting—and this turned out to be accurate within a half-degree when it was rediscovered by Franz Xaver von Zach on 31 December at Gotha, and one day later by Heinrich Olbers in Bremen.
On 9 October 1805, Gauss married Johanna Osthoff (1780-1809), and had a son and a daughter with her. Johanna died on 11 October 1809, and her most recent child, Louis, died the following year. He then married Minna Waldeck (1788-1831) on 4 August 1810, and had three more children. Gauss was never quite the same without his first wife, so he grew to dominate his children, just like his Father. Minna Waldeck died on 12 September 1831.
Zach noted that "without the intelligent work and calculations of Doctor Gauss we might not have found Ceres again". Though Gauss had up to that point been financially supported by his stipend from the Duke, he doubted the security of this arrangement, and also did not believe pure mathematics to be important enough to deserve support. Thus he sought a position in astronomy, and in 1807 was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Director of the astronomical observatory in Göttingen, a post he held for the remainder of his life.
Gauss summarized his views on the pursuit of knowledge in a letter to Farkas Bolyai dated 2 September 1808 as follows:
The discovery of Ceres led Gauss to his work on a theory of the motion of planetoids disturbed by large planets, eventually published in 1809 as Theoria motus corporum coelestium in sectionibus conicis solem ambientum (Theory of motion of the celestial bodies moving in conic sections around the Sun). In the process, he so streamlined the cumbersome mathematics of 18th-century orbital prediction that his work remains a cornerstone of astronomical computation. It introduced the Gaussian gravitational constant, and contained 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.
On Gauss's recommendation, Friedrich Bessel was awarded an honorary Doctor degree from Göttingen in March 1811. Around that time, the two men engaged in an epistolary correspondence. However, when they met in person in 1825, they quarrelled; the details are unknown.
In 1818 Gauss, putting his calculation skills to practical use, carried out a geodetic survey of the Kingdom of Hanover, linking up with previous Danish surveys. To aid the survey, Gauss invented the heliotrope, an instrument that uses a mirror to reflect sunlight over great distances, to measure positions.
The geodetic survey of Hanover, which required Gauss to spend summers traveling on horseback for a decade, fueled Gauss's interest in differential geometry and topology, fields of mathematics dealing with curves and surfaces. Among other things, he came up with the notion of Gaussian curvature. This led in 1828 to an important theorem, the Theorema Egregium (remarkable theorem), establishing an important property of the notion of curvature. Informally, the theorem says that the curvature of a surface can be determined entirely by measuring angles and distances on the surface.
Letters from Gauss years before 1829 reveal him obscurely discussing the Problem of parallel lines. Waldo Dunnington, a biographer of Gauss, argues in Gauss, Titan of Science that Gauss was in fact in full possession of non-Euclidean geometry long before it was published by Bolyai, but that he refused to publish any of it because of his fear of controversy.
In 1831, Gauss developed a fruitful collaboration with the physics professor Wilhelm Weber, leading to new knowledge in magnetism (including finding a representation for the unit of magnetism in terms of mass, charge, and time) and the discovery of Kirchhoff's circuit laws in electricity. It was during this time that he formulated his namesake law. They constructed the first electromechanical telegraph in 1833, which connected the observatory with the institute for physics in Göttingen. Gauss ordered a magnetic observatory to be built in the garden of the observatory, and with Weber founded the "Magnetischer Verein" (magnetic club in German), which supported measurements of Earth's magnetic field in many regions of the world. He developed a method of measuring the horizontal intensity of the magnetic field which was in use well into the second half of the 20th century, and worked out the mathematical theory for separating the inner and outer (magnetospheric) sources of Earth's magnetic field.
In 1840, Gauss published his influential Dioptrische Untersuchungen, in which he gave the first systematic analysis on the formation of images under a paraxial approximation (Gaussian optics). Among his results, Gauss showed that under a paraxial approximation an optical system can be characterized by its cardinal points and he derived the Gaussian lens formula.
In 1845, he became an associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands; when that became the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1851, he joined as a foreign member.
In 1854, Gauss selected the topic for Bernhard Riemann's Habilitationsvortrag, "Über die Hypothesen, welche der Geometrie zu Grunde liegen" (habilitation lecture About the hypotheses that underlie Geometry). On the way home from Riemann's lecture, Weber reported that Gauss was full of praise and excitement.
On 23 February 1855, Gauss died of a heart attack in Göttingen (then Kingdom of Hanover and now Lower Saxony); he is interred in the Albani Cemetery there. Two people gave eulogies at his funeral: Gauss's son-in-law Heinrich Ewald, and Wolfgang Sartorius von Waltershausen, who was Gauss's close friend and biographer. Gauss's brain was preserved and was studied by Rudolf Wagner, who found its mass to be slightly above average, at 1,492 grams, and the cerebral area equal to 219,588 square millimeters (340.362 square inches). Highly developed convolutions were also found, which in the early 20th century were suggested as the explanation of his genius.
Gauss eventually had conflicts with his sons. He did not want any of his sons to enter mathematics or science for "fear of lowering the family name", as he believed none of them would surpass his own achievements. Gauss wanted Eugene to become a Lawyer, but Eugene wanted to study languages. They had an argument over a party Eugene held, which Gauss refused to pay for. The son left in anger and, in about 1832, emigrated to the United States, where he was quite successful. While working for the American Fur Company in the Midwest, he learned the Sioux language. Later, he moved to Missouri and became a successful businessman. Wilhelm also moved to America in 1837 and settled in Missouri, starting as a farmer and later becoming wealthy in the shoe Business in St. Louis. It took many years for Eugene's success to counteract his reputation among Gauss's friends and colleagues. See also the letter from Robert Gauss to Felix Klein on 3 September 1912.
In 1929 the Polish Mathematician Marian Rejewski, who helped to solve the German Enigma cipher machine in December 1932, began studying actuarial statistics at Göttingen. At the request of his Poznań University professor, Zdzisław Krygowski, on arriving at Göttingen Rejewski laid flowers on Gauss's grave.
One such method was the fast Fourier transform. While this method is traditionally attributed to a 1965 paper by J. W. Cooley and J. W. Tukey, Gauss developed it as a trigonometric interpolation method. His paper, Theoria Interpolationis Methodo Nova Tractata, was only published posthumously in Volume 3 of his collected works. This paper predates the first presentation by Joseph Fourier on the subject in 1807.
From 1989 through 2001, Gauss's portrait, a normal distribution curve and some prominent Göttingen buildings were featured on the German ten-mark banknote. The reverse featured the approach for Hanover. Germany has also issued three postage stamps honoring Gauss. One (no. 725) appeared in 1955 on the hundredth anniversary of his death; two others, NOS. 1246 and 1811, in 1977, the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Daniel Kehlmann's 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt, translated into English as Measuring the World (2006), explores Gauss's life and work through a lens of historical fiction, contrasting them with those of the German Explorer Alexander von Humboldt. A film version directed by Detlev Buck was released in 2012.
In 2007 a bust of Gauss was placed in the Walhalla temple.
Gauss proved 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 1794 or 1795. In the history of statistics, this disagreement is called the "priority dispute over the discovery of the method of least squares."
In the same year, Italian Astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the dwarf planet Ceres. Piazzi could only track Ceres for somewhat more than a month, following it for three degrees across the night sky. Then it disappeared temporarily behind the glare of the Sun. Several months later, when Ceres should have reappeared, Piazzi could not locate it: the mathematical tools of the time were not able to extrapolate a position from such a scant amount of data—three degrees represent less than 1% of the total orbit.