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Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855)

At the age of seven, Carl Friedrich Gauss started elementary school, and his potential was noticed almost immediately. His teacher, Büttner, and his assistant, Martin Bartels, were amazed when Gauss summed the integers from 1 to 100 instantly by spotting that the sum was 50 pairs of numbers each pair summing to 101. In 1795 Gauss left Brunswick to study at Göttingen University.

Gauss's teacher there was Kaestner, whom Gauss often ridiculed. Gauss left Göttingen in 1798without a diploma, but by this time he had made one of his most important discoveries - the construction of a regular 17-gon by ruler and compasses This was the most major advance in this field since the time of Greek mathematics and was published as Section VII of Gauss's famous work, Disquisitiones Arithmeticae. Gauss returned to Brunswick where he received a degree in 1799. After the Duke of Brunswick had agreed to continue Gauss's stipend, he requested that Gauss submit a doctoral dissertation to the University of Helmstedt.

Although he did not disclose his methods at the time, Gauss had used his least squares approximation method. In June 1802 Gauss visited Olbers who had discovered Pallas in March of that year and Gauss investigated its orbit. Olbers requested that Gauss be made director of the proposed new observatory in Göttingen, but no action was taken. Gauss began corresponding with Bessel, whom he did not meet until 1825, and with Sophie Germain. In 1807 Gauss left Brunswick to take up the position of director of the Göttingen observatory. Gauss arrived in Göttingen in late 1807. In 1808 his father died, and a year later Gauss's wife Johanna died after giving birth to their second son, who was to die soon after her.

Gauss's work never seemed to suffer from his personal tragedy. He published his second book, Theoria motus corporum coelestium in sectionibus conicis Solem ambientium, in 1809, a major two volume treatise on the motion of celestial bodies. In the first volume he discussed differential equations, conic sections and elliptic orbits, while in the second volume, the main part of the work, he showed how to estimate and then to refine the estimation of a planet's orbit.

Gauss had been asked in 1818 to carry out a geodesic survey of the state of Hanover to link up with the existing Danish grid. Gauss was pleased to accept and took personal charge of the survey, making measurements during the day and reducing them at night, using his extraordinary mental capacity for calculations. He regularly wrote to Schumacher, Olbers and Bessel, reporting on his progress and discussing problems. Because of the survey, Gauss invented the heliotrope which worked by reflecting the Sun's rays using a of mirrors and a small telescope. However, inaccurate base lines were used for the survey and an unsatisfactory network of triangles.

From the early 1800sGauss had an interest in the question of the possible existence of a non-Euclidean geometry. He discussed this topic at length with Farkas Bolyai and in his correspondence with Gerling and Schumacher. In a book review in 1816he discussed proofs which deduced the axiom of parallels from the other Euclidean axioms, suggesting that he believed in the existence of non-Euclidean geometry, although he was rather vague.

The period 1817-1832 was a particularly distressing time for Gauss. He took in his sick mother in 1817, who stayed until her death in 1839, while he was arguing with his wife and her family about whether they should go to Berlin. He had been offered a position at Berlin University and Minna and her family were keen to move there. Gauss, however, never liked change and decided to stay in Göttingen. In 1831 Gauss's second wife died after a long illness. In 1831, Wilhelm Weber arrived in Göttingen as physics professor filling Tobias Mayer's chair. Gauss had known Weber since 1828 and supported his appointment.

In 1832, Gauss and Weber began investigating the theory of terrestrial magnetism after Alexander von Humboldt attempted to obtain Gauss's assistance in making a grid of magnetic observation points around the Earth. Gauss was excited by this prospect and by 1840 he had written three important papers on the subject: Intensitas vis magneticae terrestris ad mensuram absolutam revocata (1832), Allgemeine Theorie des Erdmagnetismus (1839) and Allgemeine Lehrsätze in Beziehung auf die im verkehrten Verhältnisse des Quadrats der Entfernung wirkenden Anziehungs- und Abstossungskräfte (1840).

These papers all dealt with the current theories on terrestrial magnetism, including Poisson's ideas, absolute measure for magnetic force and an empirical definition of terrestrial magnetism. Dirichlet's principle was mentioned without proof. Allgemeine Theorie... showed that there can only be two poles in the globe and went on to prove an important theorem, which concerned the determination of the intensity of the horizontal component of the magnetic force along with the angle of inclination. Gauss used the Laplace equation to aid him with his calculations, and ended up specifying a location for the magnetic South pole.

Humboldt had devised a calendar for observations of magnetic declination. However, once Gauss's new magnetic observatory (completed in 1833- free of all magnetic metals) had been built, he proceeded to alter many of Humboldt's procedures, not pleasing Humboldt greatly. However, Gauss's changes obtained more accurate results with less effort. Gauss and Weber achieved much in their six years together. They discovered Kirchhoff's laws, as well as building a primitive telegraph device which could send messages over a distance of 5000 ft. However, this was just an enjoyable pastime for Gauss.

He was more interested in the task of establishing a world-wide net of magnetic observation points. This occupation produced many concrete results. The Magnetischer Verein and its journal were founded, and the atlas of geomagnetism was published, while Gauss and Weber's own journal in which their results were published ran from 1836 to 1841. In 1837, Weber was forced to leave Göttingen when he became involved in a political dispute and, from this time, Gauss's activity gradually decreased. He still produced letters in response to fellow scientists' discoveries usually remarking that he had known the methods for years but had never felt the need to publish. Sometimes he seemed extremely pleased with advances made by other mathematicians, particularly that of Eisenstein and of Lobachevsky.