Carl Friedrich Gauss, The Prince Of Mathematics


Carl Friedrich Gauss, The Prince Of Mathematics

What were you up to at 5 years old? If your name is Carl Friedrich Gauss, you’re weren’t doing something sensible for a toddler, like watching Sesame Street. Oh, no—you were managing your father’s accounts. After all, that’s the natural progression once you’ve first corrected an error in his payroll at age 3. We’re not joking here. Gauss is one of history’s most influential mathematicians, and if you don’t know about him, pull up a chair and get comfy.

Portrait of Carl Friedrich Gauss at the age of 50.

Prime Time

Gauss wowed his teachers with skills like amazingly quick calculations and critiques of Euclid’s geometry (by the ripe old age of 12, mind you). As a teenager attending the prestigious University of Göttingen, The Story of Mathematics explains that “Gauss discovered (or independently rediscovered) several important theorems.” For instance, at 15, he was “the first to find any kind of a pattern in the occurrence of prime numbers”—a feat that had puzzled mathematicians for centuries. He did this by graphing the incidence of primes as the numbers increased and noticing that as the numbers increased by 10, “the probability of prime numbers occurring reduced by a factor of about 2.”

If that wasn’t a big enough accomplishment for one person, the prodigy made several other remarkable contributions to mathematics—specifically in his favorite area, number theory. Gauss has been quoted to say: “Mathematics is the queen of the sciences, and the theory of numbers is the queen of mathematics.” He was the first to popularize the practice of interpreting complex numbers graphically, and he proved the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra at age 22. According to The Story of Mathematics, “the theorem states that every non-constant single-variable polynomial over the complex numbers has at least one root.”

Title page of Gauss’s Disquisitiones Arithmeticae.

The Gaussian Way

By age 24, you might be working at your first “real” job. Gauss, on the other hand, published a book that would eventually become regarded as one of the most influential books in mathematics, ever: Disquisitiones Arithmeticae—no big deal. You might also be familiar with the Gaussian distribution, the Gaussian function and the Gaussian error curve…all terms in probability and statistics that were named after him (duh). To learn more about one of our favorite mathematical geniuses, watch the following Numberphile video.

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