Gauss in Göttingen
“Nothing would afford me greater pleasure than if you should wish to spend a substantial period sojourning in Göttingen. Whatever the advantages larger towns might possess in relation to other kinds of enjoyments, nowhere could you encounter a greater warmth for all efforts directed towards learning by listening to nature’s secrets.“ This is how Carl Friedrich Gauss described the intellectual climate in the university town of Göttingen in southern Lower Saxony, in a letter to Schilling von Cannstadt dating from September 1835.
Gauss and Göttingen constituted a life-long relationship, the considerable stability of which stemmed not least from the fact that here, the shy scientist was confronted with a high-powered intellectual environment but few public duties. Throughout his life, the brilliant academic refused to involve his discoveries in the “instruction of the masses“. He turned down lucrative offers such as professorships in St. Petersburg, Berlin and Leipzig and continued to hold the Chair and post of Director of the Göttingen Observatory right up until his death. The impact of Gauss’ work and the fascination he emitted, which were, and still are, felt throughout the world, have left their mark on the Georg-August University of today and its scientific reputation.
The Observatory in Geismar Landstraße was built in the period from 1803 to 1816 as the only state (formerly royal) observatory in Lower Saxony, or what used to be the Kingdom of Hanover, to this day. In his position as its first Director, from 1807 onwards Gauss exerted a strong influence on how it was equipped. Astronomy in Göttingen, which had attained its fame with Gauss, remains today a pillar of the natural sciences and Faculty of Physics that came into being later on. Amongst Gauss’ successors was Karl Schwarzschild, one of the founders of modern astrophysics.
Carl Friedrich Gauss was the first mathematician of special note at Göttingen’s reform university of the Enlightenment, which was founded in 1737. In the course of his working life, the mathematics department in Göttingen blossomed to become a centre of worldwide repute for this science. Those who followed the mathematician Gauss in Göttingen such as Dirichlet, Riemann, Hilbert, Courant, Noether, and Klein were themselves to be counted amongst the greatest names of their time. It is well-nigh impossible to assess the full significance of Gauss’ legacy as regards mathematics, the sciences and technology. Achievements of Albert Einstein, for example, are strongly associated with Gauss, for example in the case of the development of the intrinsic surface theory, which can be traced through from Gauss, via Riemann, to the general theory of relativity. Einstein’s explanation of Brownian motion is closely connected with Gaussian distribution. These links are examples of how a modern scientific view of the world came about, the latter having had its origins to a considerable degree in Göttingen.
So far, 44 Nobel prize winners have lived, taught and researched in Göttingen currently, Manfred Eigen and Ernst Neher at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry. Personalities such as Gauss, Hahn and Heisenberg, as well as Lichtenberg and the two Grimm brothers, laid the foundations for the town to evolve into an important location for science.
Carl Friedrich Gauss’ relationship to Göttingen was one of which he was keenly aware. A contemporary the Göttingen physiologist Rudolph Wagner reported on this relationship with the comment: “It is a curious fact that … of all the recognition granted to him for his achievements, becoming a Freeman of the Town of Göttingen meant the most to him.”