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The Prince of Mathematics: Carl Friedrich Gauss

M. B. W. Tent
A. K. Peters
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Lisa DeKeukelaere
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The Prince of Mathematics is an easily readable account of the life of master mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, combining just enough equations and descriptions of mathematical method to make the adult science enthusiast nod with interest and a storyline complete with deep dramatic elements. While aiming to appeal to a wide range of age groups, however, it falls short by using storytelling tools that will probably leave each group feeling like the book wasn’t quite intended for them.

The book begins in 1777 with a three-year-old Gauss correcting the arithmetic of his incredulous, working-class father. An account of how he learned to count while watching his mother peel potatoes provides insight into his passionate inquisitiveness as a child and the disparity between the intellectual levels of his parents and his future self. Other passages, however, such as a description of how he wishes to one day become a prince, seem to have been included only to set up a fairy-tale ending for young readers and appear slightly contrived and unnecessary to an adult.

The famous example of an elementary-school-aged Gauss’ speedy summation of the natural numbers from 1 to 100 is, of course, included, but more interesting are the descriptions of his special tutoring set-up and his early transition to the university enabled by funding from the duke of his province. Although the reconstructed conversations between Gauss and his tutor seem slightly forced, they offer interesting insight into Gauss’ dedication to discovery and his propensity to question established mathematical principles — a trait that later led him to discover non-Euclidean geometry.

The early sections offer descriptions of the mathematical concepts Gauss studied and questioned as a youth, including his discovery of the Prime Number Theorem at the age of 15. The author’s descriptions are clear enough to allow the math-savvy reader to fly through without picking up a pencil, but would probably give pause to (and possibly alienate) the average seventh-grade reader.

The remainder of the book rolls along easily, providing an overview of his career transitions and accomplishments in astronomy and later surveying, mixed with descriptions of his two marriages and the births of his children. The ample number of passages on his personal life weave a story with key dramatic elements, like the loss of a spouse and the difficult relationships between parents and children, presented in terms understandable to young readers but with implications that help hold the interest of the non-mathematically inclined adult reader.

While Gauss enthusiasts and mathematical historians will probably want to bypass this book, youth and adult readers with some interest in mathematics will be able to gain something from it. Both groups will come away with a basic understanding of the scope of Gauss’ accomplishments and the personal and cultural issues affecting his life. Adult readers, however, may be slightly put off by the vocabulary and the inclusion of tedious, inconsequential conversations — such as Gauss’ daughter Therese serving him tea — that seem to have been added to make the book feel more like a story for young readers. Younger readers, on the other hand, may be frustrated by the author’s attempts to describe somewhat complex mathematical concepts, such as the construction of a 17-gon.

After completing her mathematics major at Colby College with flying colors, Lisa DeKeukelaere now lives in Washington, DC.

The table of contents is not available.