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Mathematicians who changed the world: Johann Gauss (1777-1855)

Johann Gauss was a German mathematician and is often considered to have been one of the most productive mathematicians in history.

Gauss was consumed by mathematics – it is said that, upon being interrupted in the middle of a maths problem to be told his wife was was dying, he merely responded, “Tell her to hold on a minute”.

Many advances in the fields of number theory, geometry and algebra, and also science and astronomy were credited to Gauss, but not necessarily at his time of living. He kept some of his best ideas to himself. Some have suggested that if he had published all his ideas upon discovery, he would have advanced maths by 50 years!

As a child, Gauss was precocious and a regular irritant to his teacher who found him difficult to keep up with. One famous story tells of the time his teacher telling Gauss to go away and add up the numbers from 1 to 100 as a punishment. To the teacher’s astonishment, Gauss returned seconds later with the correct answer! He had spotted that you could put the numbers 1 to 100 into 50 pairs, each pair summing to 101 (100+1, 99+2, 98+3 etc.). Then he simply multiplied 50 by 101 to get 5050!

As an adult, Gauss was a great collaborator and was very helpful in using his maths skills to help academics in other fields. In 1801 he helped Giuseppe Piazzi in the discovery of the dwarf planet Ceres.

Piazzi had tracked Ceres (which is only 945km in diameter and lies in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune) until its orbit fell behind the Sun. Piazzi could not find it in his telescope when it came out from the other side.

Gauss spent three months using his maths skills to predict the exact angle Piazzi should point his telescope in the night sky to find Ceres again and thus prove it was orbiting the sun. Another asteroid, 1001 Gaussia, is also named after Gauss – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Hundreds of buildings across the world are named after him, and he has appeared on German banknotes and stamps.  

Discover more mathematicians who changed the world:

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