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Gauss's Day of Reckoning

A famous story about the boy wonder of mathematics has taken on a life of its own

Brian Hayes

The Moral of the Tale

The story of Gauss and his conquest of the arithmetic series has a natural appeal to young people. After all, the hero is a child—a child who outwits a "virile brute." For many students, that is surely an inspiration. But I worry a little that the constant repetition of stories like this one may leave the impression that mathematics is a game suited only to those who go through life continually throwing off sparks of brilliance.

On first hearing this fable, most students surely want to imagine themselves in the role of Gauss. Sooner or later, however, most of us discover we are one of the less-distinguished classmates; if we eventually get the right answer, it's by hard work rather than native genius. I would hope that the story could be told in a way that encourages those students to keep going. And perhaps it can be balanced by other stories showing there's a place in mathematics for more than one kind of mind.

In collecting versions of the Gauss anecdote I've been helped by dozens of librarians as well as friends and others. I particularly want to thank Johannes Berg of the University of Cologne; Caroline Grey of the Johns Hopkins University libraries; Stephan Mertens of the University of Magdeburg; Ivo Schneider of the Bundeswehr University, Munich; Margaret Tent of the Altamont School in Birmingham, Alabama, and Mary Linn Wernet of the Northwestern State University libraries in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

© Brian Hayes

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A collection of versions of the Gauss anecdote

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