Carl Friedrich Gauss: Ceres, the bell curve …. and faith in God



On 23 February 1855, the German mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777 – 1855) died in Göttingen. He ardently pursued a rather vast array of interests, from astronomy to geometry, mathematical analysis to physics, and magnetism to electrostatics. He is noted for formulating the law of the distribution of casual errors known as the Gaussian function or the bell curve. He is sometimes referred to as the Princeps mathematicorum (Latin, “the Prince of Mathematicians”).

In 1795, Gauss entered the University of Göttingen. While there he discovered how to construct a 17-sided polygon with ruler and compass. Gauss left the university in 1798 without a degree. In 1799, Gauss developed the concept of complex numbers and also submitted a dissertation to the University of Helmstedt providing a proof for the fundamental theorem of algebra.  This dissertation won Gauss a doctoral degree in abstentia. In 1801, Gauss completed “Disquisitiones Arithmeticae,” a major volume on number theory.

He first came to prominence when the was 24 years old: Guiseppe Piazzi, an astronomer and Catholic priest, had detected a small planet between Mars and Jupiter that he called Ceres on 01 January 1801. Ceres was reclassified as “asteroid” and is now called “dwarf planet” as being the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Unfortunately, Piazzi could only observe Ceres until 11 February 1801; it then disappeared and was too close to the Sun’s glare for further observations. It was the young Gauss who allowed such a precise prediction of its reappearance that the Hungarian astronomer Franz Xaver von Zach could find Ceres again on 07 December 1801.

The experience led Gauss to expand on his own work, and in 1809 he published “Theoria motus corporum coelestium in sectionibus conicis solem ambientum” (“Theory of motion of the celestial bodies moving in conic sections around the Sun”), in which he completely overhauled the mathematical methods of the day, and introduced the method of least squares for dealing with observational uncertainties. This work of Gauss’ remains the basis for modern orbit calculating.

Gauss was a genius, he knew it and he certainly was not an easy companion for his children, his friends, fellow-scientists and himself. And he had a big share of hardships during his life. He was Lutheran, but it seems that faith and dogma were difficult topics for him. He said, though, that the Lutheran theologian and song writer Paul Gerhardt had influenced him deeply.  [Johann Sebastian Bach used several of Gerhardt’s poems in his music; in addition, both Lutheran and Catholic Christians in the German speaking area have hymns and choral written by him that are dear to our hearts].

One of his biographers, G. Waldo Dunnington, described Gauss’ religious views as follows:

For him science was the means of exposing the immortal nucleus of the human soul. In the days of his full strength, it furnished him recreation and, by the prospects which it opened up to him, gave consolation. Toward the end of his life, it brought him confidence. Gauss’s God was not a cold and distant figment of metaphysics, nor a distorted caricature of embittered theology. To man is not vouchsafed that fullness of knowledge which would warrant his arrogantly holding that his blurred vision is the full light and that there can be none other which might report the truth as does his. For Gauss, not he who mumbles his creed, but he who lives it, is accepted. He believed that a life worthily spent here on earth is the best, the only, preparation for heaven. Religion is not a question of literature, but of life. God’s revelation is continuous, not contained in tablets of stone or sacred parchment. A book is inspired when it inspires. The unshakeable idea of personal continuance after death, the firm belief in a last regulator of things, in an eternal, just, omniscient, omnipotent God, formed the basis of his religious life, which harmonized completely with his scientific research. [1]

Gauss’ words are indeed deep and important:

„Wenn unsere letzte Stunde schlägt, wird es uns eine unsagbar große Freude sein, den zu sehen, den wir in unserem Schaffen nur ahnen konnten.“

“When our last hour comes, we will have the great and ineffable joy of seeing the One whom we could only glimpse in all our work.”

Gauss also confirmed that our scientific endeavors have boundaries when he said:

„There are problems to whose solution I would attach an infinitely greater importance than to those of mathematics, for example touching ethics, or our relation to God, or concerning our destiny and our future; but their solution lies wholly beyond us and completely outside the province of science.“ [2]


Sources and further recommended reading:

Wikipedia: Carl Friedrich Gauss  and Ceres (dwarf planet)

Leorah Weiss, Gauss and Ceres, History of Mathematics Term Paper, Rutgers, Spring 1999

Marcus du Sautoy, Carl Gauss, el matemático que creó una de las herramientas más poderosas de la ciencia para hallar un planeta perdido (y esa fue apenas una de sus genialidades), BBC, 19 Aug 2018

[1] G. Waldo Dunnington, Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science, 1955 (2004)

[2] Carl Friedrich Gauss, as quoted in The World of Mathematics (1956) Edited by J. R. Newman, found here.

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