Ivars Peterson's MathTrek
October 25, 2004
In effect, Gauss had discovered a simple method for summing an arithmetic sequence (or arithmetic progression). In an arithmetic progression, each term is calculated from the previous one by adding (or subtracting) a constant value. To get the sequence's sum, multiply the number of terms by the average of the smallest and largest terms.
This famous story testifies to Gauss's mathematical precocity as a child. It's repeatedwith variations and differing amounts of detailin many textbooks, articles, and Web pages. Math teachers often tell it to their students.
One particularly detailed account is in the biography Gauss: Titan of Science by G. Waldo Dunnington. Long out of print, the book has recently been republished by the Mathematical Association of America. It's considered the most comprehensive biography of Gauss available in English.
Dunnington provided all sorts of details. The teacher was J.G. BŁttner, director of the St. Katharine's Volksschule. The school seems to have had a medieval flavordingy surroundings and teachers ready to use the whip to encourage learning.
"BŁttner once gave the class the exercise of writing down all the numbers from 1 to 100 and adding them," Dunnington wrote. "The pupil who finished an exercise first always laid down his tablet in the middle of a big table; the second laid his on top of this, and so forth. The problem had scarcely been given when Gauss threw his tablet on the table and said in Brunswick low dialect: 'Ligget se' (There 'tis)."
There are many other variants of the story. Some accounts insist that the teacher assigned the problem just to keep the class busy (and quiet) for a long period so he could take a break.
Intriguingly, E.T. Bell's account of Gauss's life in his 1937 book Men of Mathematics suggests that the problem Gauss faced wasn't actually as simple as summing the integers from 1 to 100.
"As it was the beginning class none of the boys had ever heard of an arithmetical progression," Bell wrote. "It was easy then for . . . BŁttner to give out a long problem in addition whose answer he could find by a formula in a few seconds. The problem was of the following sort, 81297 + 81495 + 81693 + . . . + 100899, where the step from one number of the next is the same all along (here 198), and a given number of terms (here 100) are to be added."
That's a tougher problem, and it's possible to imagine that it would take "ordinary" pupils a long time to solve it.
Just as in Dunnington's version, Bell described Gauss as completing the problem very quickly and flinging down his slate.
"Then, for the ensuing hour, while the other boys toiled, he sat with his hands folded, favored now and then by a sarcastic glance from BŁttner, who imagined the youngest pupil in the class was just another blockhead," Bell wrote. "To the end of his days Gauss loved to tell how the one number he had written was the correct answer and how all the others were wrong."
When details differ among various accounts, which story should you believeand retell? Does it even matter?
In the mathematics classroom, it may be worth taking a little bit of extra trouble to get the facts right or, at least, to be as precise as possible. After all, mathematics is built on proof and precision. Aiming for the same standard in mathematical anecdote isn't really too much to ask, even when you can't be sure of the facts and simply have to admit upfront that a story may not be completely true.
Copyright © 2004 by Ivars Peterson
Bell, E.T. 1937. Men of Mathematics. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Dunnington, G.W. 1955. Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science. New York: Hafner. Reprinted 2004 by the Mathematical Association of America.
Ross, P. 1995. Why isn't there a Nobel prize in mathematics? Math Horizons 3(November):9. Available at http://mathforum.org/social/articles/ross.html.
A brief biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss can be found at http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Gauss.html.