I assume he is talking about Gauss' discovery that the heptadecagon was constructable with the classic tools of Greek Geometry.... hope that's it anyway.
So here is my version of that story, with many clips from Wolfram and Wikipedia...
One of the great problems of antiquity, along with doubling the cube and squaring the circle, was construction of a heptagon, a seven-sided polygon, with a straight edge and compass. Euclid had demonstrated the construction of the pentagon, the hexagon was easy, and so the early geometricians focused on the "next one". The early geometers knew that if an n-gon could be done, a 2n-gon was easy, so the octagon was easy, the decagon was easy, butt the nonagon also caused problems. Over the years it became an open question in mathematics, "Which polygons are constructable with straight edge and compass?"
On April 30, 1796, Gauss, at the age of nineteen, proved the constructability of the regular 17-gon (heptadecagon). He did this by showing, (I think) that it could be factored into equations involving no more than quadratics. I have been looking on line for a copy of Disquisitiones Arithmeticae in my price range (literally-free) but have not found one to see how he explains. Within five years he had developed a theory that described exactly which polygons were, and which were not, constructable. He didn't actually construct one, but he proved it could be constructed. The proof relies on the property of irreducible polynomial equations that roots composed of a finite number of square root extractions only exist when the order of the equation is the product of powers of two and Fermat Primes. Gauss showed that the 17-gon is constructable since the sine and cosine of 2π⁄17 can be expressed with basic arithmetic and square roots alone (which can be formed with a compass and straightedge). The first actual method of construction was devised by Johannes Erchinger, a few years after Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published. In the book Gauss supposedly writes cos(2pi/17) as an expansion of square roots which would look like this in modern notation
- (thank you wikipedia)
Guass was so proud of this, among all his great discoveries, that he told his close friend, Farkas Bolyai, that the regular 17-gon should adorn his tombstone, but this was not done. There is a 17 pointed star on the base of a monument to him in Brunswick because the stonemason felt everyone would mistake the 17-gon for a circle.
Five years later, he developed the theory of Gaussian periods in his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae. This theory allowed him to formulate a sufficient condition for the constructability of regular polygons:
Gauss stated without proof that this condition was also necessary, but never published his proof. A full proof of necessity was given by Pierre Wantzel in 1837.
- A regular n-gon can be constructed with compass and straightedge if n is the product of a power of 2 and any number of distinct Fermat primes.
Detailed results by Gauss' theoryOnly five Fermat primes are known:
The next twenty-eight Fermat numbers, F5 through F32, are known to be composite.
- F0 = 3, F1 = 5, F2 = 17, F3 = 257, and F4 = 65537 (sequence A019434 in OEIS)
Thus an n-gon is constructable if
Connection to Pascal's triangleThere are 31 known numbers that are multiples of distinct Fermat primes, which correspond to the 31 odd-sided regular polygons that are known to be constructable. These are 3, 5, 15, 17, 51, 85, 255, 257, … , 4294967295 (sequence A001317 in OEIS). As John Conway commented in The Book of Numbers, these numbers, when written in binary, are equal to the first 32 rows of the modulo-2 Pascal's triangle (see below), minus the top row. This pattern breaks down after there, as the 6th Fermat number is composite, so the following rows do not correspond to constructable polygons. It is unknown whether any more Fermat primes exist, and is therefore unknown how many odd-sided constructable polygons exist. In general, if there are x Fermat primes, then there are 2x−1 odd-sided constructable polygons.
Pascal's triangle mod-2
1 1 = 3
1 0 1 = 5
1 1 1 1 = 15
1 0 0 0 1 = 17
1 1 0 0 1 1 = 51
1 0 1 0 1 0 1 = 85
1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 = 255 etc...
This biography of Gauss, by far the most comprehensive in English, is the work of a professor of German, G. Waldo Dunnington, who devoted most of his scholarly career to studying the life of Germany's greatest mathematician. The author was inspired to pursue this project at the age of twelve when he learned from his teacher in Missouri that no full biography of Gauss existed at the time. His teacher was Gauss's great granddaughter, Minna Waldeck Gauss. Long out of print and almost impossible to find on the used book market, this valuable piece of scholarship is being reissued in an augmented form with introductory remarks, an expanded and updated bibliography, and a commentary on Gauss's mathematical diary, by the eminent British mathematical historian, Jeremy Gray.