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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Throwback Fact: Gauss's Birthday

Carl Friedrich Gauss
On this day in 1777, Carl Friedrich Gauss was born. The Prince of Mathematics was an important part of our Math Madness competition, and made it to the Final Four round. But in his short bio on our webpage, we missed some facts about Gauss that make his life even more interesting and impressive.

The great mathematician would have been 238 years old today, but there was a time that he did not know the date of his birth. Gauss was born to poor, working-class parents, and his mother was not quite literate. She did not record the date of Gauss's birth. Years later, she could just recall that Gauss was born on a Wednesday, and it was 8 days before Ascension Day, which lies on the calendar 40 days after Easter Sunday.

Gauss knew he was born about a month after Easter
Gauss could have looked up an old calendar from the year of his birth and determine the day from there. But instead, he elected to develop an algorithm that would solve a centuries-old problem: determining the date of Easter Sunday. This had been elusive because of the astronomical nature of Easter Sunday; it lands on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the first day of Spring. It had been difficult to produce a failsafe equation that would always calculuate the proper phase of the moon in the proper season of the year.

Before Gauss's discovery of a simple algorithm, astronomers were required to use a series of complicated tables to determine the date of astronomical occurances. In 1799, Gauss managed to create a surprisingly easy to use system to determine Easter sunday (my favorite description of the math behind the algorithm is here). At the age of 22, Gauss finally determined his birth date.

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