Saturday, March 15, 2008

A historical meme


I do not hesitate to ignore chain letters or to ash-can urgent e-mail messages demanding that I forward them to everyone in my address list. Breaking the chain in such cases is simply a public service. The Ridger, however, has tagged me with one of those blog memes. With characteristic grace and sensitivity, she does not peremptorily demand compliance. Clever of her. That's exactly the right tack to get me to go along with the idea. Even better, the meme is an intriguing one:
The rules are as follows:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
3) Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
4) Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.
This meme has mutated since its initial launch, The Ridger and her immediate predecessor in the chain having scaled back the referrals to merely five—a sensible mod that I will follow.

My favorite historical figure

Carl Friedrich Gauss was a mathematical prodigy who did not outgrow his precocious promise. His fame in my field stems from several remarkable traits and feats:

1 After his death, Gauss's notebooks were eventually found to have anticipated many of the mathematical developments of the next several decades. Many theorems named after the mathematicians who originally published them were discovered first by Gauss. For example, he withheld publication of his work on non-Euclidean geometry because he had no stomach for the controversies he was certain would follow and because his life-long motto was Pauca sed matura (“Few, but ripe”). Gauss would publish nothing until he had polished it to a high gloss and was content to leave all his preliminary work in his private notes.

2 Despite being famous as the foremost mathematician of his era, Gauss held a faculty position as an astronomer. Pure mathematics was not esteemed enough by the financial angels of the day (the nobles who sponsored endowed faculty chairs), but astronomy had a greater cachet. On the strength of his brilliant calculations that permitted astronomers to rediscover the asteroid Ceres, Gauss applied for and was granted the position of professor of astronomy at Göttingen.

3 In addition to his accomplishments in astronomy and celestial mechanics, Gauss made major contributions to physics. One of the most important, Gauss's law, connects the electrical charge within a closed surface to the flux of the electric field through that same surface. Gauss's law has an abstract mathematical analog, sometimes called Gauss's theorem or the divergence theorem, that restates the law in terms of general vector fields. The combination of Gauss's law and Gauss's theorem is a powerful reminder of the strong connections between mathematics and physics. Don't forget that Newton devised calculus as a tool for his explorations in the sciences.

4 The Gaussian distribution is the classic bell curve from probability and statistics. As with many of Gauss's other discoveries, the bell curve was derived from the mathematician's practical work—in this case his analysis of measurement errors in a regional surveying project.

5 The two-hundredth anniversary of Gauss's birth occurred in 1977, a year after the American bicentennial. It may be that the previous year's national celebrations provided a context for commemorating another bicentennial. I was a graduate student in mathematics at the time and still remember the front page story in the Sacramento Bee reporting on a proclamation by Governor Jerry Brown in honor of the Gauss bicentennial. Jerry was still on the “small is beautiful” kick of his first term (he had established an “Office of Appropriate Technology”) and saw the Gauss anniversary as an opportunity to say a few words about the importance of science and technology, both of which were amply demonstrated by Gauss's remarkable career.

That's five items (well, five paragraphs, at least), so I'll stop there. Anyone interested in Gauss's amazing life and work can find more information on-line or in Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science, a biography by G. Waldo Dunnington, republished in 2003 by the Mathematical Association of America.

By the way, many people insist on referring to “Karl” Friedrich Gauss because of Gauss's Germanic origins. Gauss, himself, favored “Carl” and signed his name in that manner. Show no mercy to the hypercorrectionists who edit Gauss's own name. (I am less censorious toward those who use a double-s in his last name—Gauss—as opposed to the es-zett—Gauß. We don't, after all, have the es-zett in our alphabet.)

Tag, you're it

To whom should I pass on this meme? In the considerate tradition of The Ridger, I tap the following people, while reiterating that compliance is certainly at one's own inclination

Nick Barrowman at Log base 2
Zrk at Live from Zi
Dan Greene at The Exponential Curve
Tony Lucchese at Pencils Down
Scott Hatfield at Monkey Trials

Now it's up to them whether this branch of the meme continues to ramify.

1 comment:

Carbonfish said...

Thanks for the cool and interesting Gaussian overview... Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and degauss some tapes.