Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 33.djvu/712

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
694
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

SKETCH OF CARL FRIEDRICH GAUSS.

"IF we except the great name of Newton," says Prof. H. J. S. Smith, "it is probable that no mathematician of any age or country has ever surpassed Gauss in the combination of an abundant fertility in invention with an absolute rigorousness in demonstration which the ancient Greeks themselves might have envied." Wagener says, in the sketch of Gauss in the "Biographie Universelle," that each work of his is an event in the history of science, a revolution, which, overturning the old theories and methods, replaces them by new ones, and advances science to a height which no one had ever before dreamed of. The scientific estimate of Gauss's quality took another form in the expression of Laplace, who, when asked who was the greatest mathematician in Germany, replied "Pfaff." His interrogator remarking that he should have thought Gauss was, Laplace retorted, "Oh, yes, Pfaff is the greatest mathematician in Germany, but Gauss is the greatest mathematician in Europe."

Carl Friedrich Gauss was born in Brunswick, April 23, 1777, and died in Göttingen, February 23, 1855. His father was a brick-layer, and desired that the boy should be brought up to the same trade. But the lad had other tastes, and is said by some of his biographers to have displayed a greater precocity in his aptitude for mathematics than even Pascal. At three years old he could calculate and solve problems in numbers, and amuse himself by tracing geometrical lines and figures in the sand. He had, in fact, hardly reached that age when he ventured to tell his father concerning a certain account, "That is not right; it should be so much"—and was correct. At the age of ten he was acquainted with the binomial theorem and theory of the infinite series. Such gifts could not fail to attract marked attention from his teachers. The report of them reached Bartels, afterward Professor of Mathematics at Dorpat, and he brought the youth to the notice of Charles William, Duke of Brunswick, who undertook the charge of his education. Having, rather in opposition to his father's designs, learned all that the professors at the Collegium Carolinum could teach him, he went to Göttingen, in 1795, "as yet undecided whether to pursue philology or mathematics." The scale was probably turned by circumstances; one of them, perhaps, being the rare gifts of the mathematical professor, Kaestner, whom Gauss described as the "first of geometers among poets, and the first of poets among geometers"; and another, his success in solving the problem of the division of the circle into seventeen equal parts. Henceforth he made mathematics, which he styled "the queen of the sciences," the main study of his life, interesting himself par-