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I have read a bit about Gauss, who was well known for being careful in only publishing work he had perfected (or in his own words "few, but ripe"). What is interesting to me about Gauss though is that all accounts of his students and contemporaries essentially make him appear flawless. Dedekind's recollections of how whenever Gauss wrote out an argument he used exactly the amount of space he had available, etc. In Disquistiones Arithmeticae, Gauss for example points out the flaws and shortcomings of other famous mathematicians such as Euler, who some might rank close to Gauss.

So I am curious if there is a single recorded instance of Gauss ever having made a mathematical error.

Thanks, Matt

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(Tongue firmly in cheek) Gauss was a pioneer in the theory of errors ... the Gauss error function –  Old John Nov 28 '13 at 23:43
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Who the hell is Gauss ? –  derivative Nov 28 '13 at 23:51
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look at the all knowning Wikipedia do ctrl+f (or apple-button+fruit) and search for Gauss or skip to the fourth paragraph –  Peter Sheldrick Nov 29 '13 at 0:06

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Euler ranks higher than Gauss in my opinion. Having said that, I do not know if there is a recorded instance of Gauss making a mathematical error, but it's worth pointing out that the work of the 18th and early 19th century mathematicians was plagued by lack of rigor. Only later in the 18th century did the strides in analysis give mathematics a solid grounding.

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@MattBrenneman To mathematicians today, Gauss is a giant regardless. Gaps or lack of rigor in his work by no means diminish its importance and originality. Listen to this podcast if you are interested: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ss0lf –  JohnK Nov 28 '13 at 23:52
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Second only to Euler, I would say. –  Daniel Fischer Nov 28 '13 at 23:57
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Oh, there are (were?) many giants. But I think the first two places are settled (well, maybe some day...). –  Daniel Fischer Nov 29 '13 at 0:03
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@StefanSmith I'd say so. Laplace viciously criticized Fourier for lack of rigor. –  JohnK Nov 29 '13 at 0:57
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@Ioannis In fact, many mathematicians blasted Fourier for his work. He shot from the hips in somewhat the same fashion as Newton and Leibniz with regards to developing calculus, taking things for granted. Fourier died fairly young I believe (40s?) and he never got to see his work vindicated. Kind of tragic if you ask me. –  Cameron Williams Nov 29 '13 at 1:30

You are seeing the down side of the "few but ripe" idea. He comes off badly in the episode with Bolyai. He did not publish his findings n a new, non-Euclidean geometry, over fears of shrill criticism from followers of Immanuel Kant. For the moment, I am going to assume that the word he actually used referred to Boethius; perhaps someone else knows. EDIT: no, it is an ancient insult, the citizens of Athens thought of their neighbors as dull and stupid.

The part I dislike is when Janos Bolyai's father, Farkas Bolyai, wrote to Gauss, asking his opinion of this new world. Gauss replied that he could not praise Janos, as he would then be praising himself, Gauss having done much the same thing decades earlier. I've always thought this a mixture of cowardice and lack of generosity. There really is a difference between doing a bunch of calculations and saying "If so and so happens, here are some rules that apply" compared with saying "Here is the actual thing."

Well, the full story is intricate, but Gauss's reply hit Janos very hard, and appears to have convinced him to drop mathematics; at least, he published no more.

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I cannot but remember with this incident what Stephen Hawking said to Homer Simpson. –  Matemáticos Chibchas Nov 29 '13 at 1:32

how about errors of omission? Gauss was famous for not publishing monumental discoveries until after they were rediscovered.

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