When I arrived in Göttingen, I didn’t know who Carl Friedrich Gauss was. It was one of my classmates who told me about Gauss, and was deeply shocked that I was not familiar with him. The day I left Göttingen, on my way across town to catch my train, I took a detour to find his grave. It turned out to be only a hundred yards away from a path that I took nearly every day; this was great because I was hauling a suitcase full of clothes, textbooks and chocolate. Unlike the other graves I discuss in this column, Gauss’ grave is not in the city cemetery but the Albani cemetery, which dates back to the late 18th century. Sadly, it was badly damaged in the Second World War and only a few graves remain; thankfully, Gauss’ is one of them. This makes it easy to find his grave, and I did so within fifteen seconds of entering the cemetery. I had to ruefully tug my unwieldy suitcase across the extremely bumpy grass under the perplexed stares of passersby and the two goths smoking under a tree. It was well worth the struggle to see the grave—it is beautiful and well kept, a monument suitable for such an influential man.
Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss was born into a poor working-class family in what was then the Duchy of Brunswick. His parents were Dorothea and Gebhard Gauss, the latter of which worked whatever jobs he could find. Gauss was a prodigy, and there are many anecdotes about his mathematical genius. His fame was great enough even as a boy that the Duke of Brunswick himself paid for Gauss to go to school and then attend the University of Göttingen. He stayed for four years but left without a diploma.
It was during the years at university, however, that Gauss finished his great work, “The Disquisitiones Arithmeticae” (Arithmetical Investigations). In this book, he formalizes number theory, a branch of mathematics that studies integers – numbers that do not have a fractional or decimal—a discipline that had been fairly fragmented. He corrected previous mathematicians’ proofs, simplified typical calculations and filled gaps in theories, making number theory a cohesive branch of mathematics. He was only 21 at the time he finished.
Gauss spent some time working independently, supported by the Duke of Brunswick. During this time, he successfully predicted the location where the recently discovered dwarf planet Ceres would reappear from behind the sun and became involved in astronomy. Gauss’ patron, the Duke, was killed while fighting for the Prussian army, but fortunately in 1807, Gauss was appointed professor of astronomy at the University of Göttingen, as well as Director of the Göttingen Astronomical Observatory.
Gauss’ early years in Göttingen were hard, as both his father and first wife died. He took in his sick mother and married again. However, the year his second wife died, Wilhelm Weber became a physics professor at Göttingen. Gauss and Weber spent six very productive years working on mathematical physics and electromagnetics. Their most important work, however, was that on the magnetic field of the earth. With the support of the famous explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, Gauss and Weber established the Göttinger Magnetischer Verein, or Göttingen Magnetism Club. The club established magnetic observatories all over the world to record data pertaining to the earth’s magnetic field. This monumental project was the first international scientific society.
In 1837, Weber left Göttingen because of a political dispute; after this, Gauss’ productivity began to wane. He became the manager of the university’s widow’s fund and the financial knowledge he gained allowed him to invest well enough that he made a fortune. His health began to deteriorate and he died in his sleep on Feb.23, 1855.