Sunday, 1 May 2011

Gauss' Missing Blackboard

I just came across a document on the web that I can't find the source of but it has a really nice story about Gauss and the constructable 17-gon story. It seems to be related to someone named Alex Anderson...(if you know that person, he has a picture I want a copy of very much)..
"Gauss was visiting Braunschweig (Brunswick) and still lying in bed on 29 Mar 1796 when he realised the connection of the cyclotomic polynomial to the construction of the n-gon and how to construct the 17 gon. Ahrens [p. 11] says Gauss sent the slate on which he had done the calculation to Wolfgang Bolyai, who preserved it." Does anyone know where that slate is today?


Anonymous said...


I think this is the Ahrens book that he refers to. Check p. 11. I don't read German, but it looks like it contains the anecdote. I too am interested to know more about this. It's the first I've heard of it.


Anonymous said...


In this book I found the quote: "Gauss gave to Bolyai the tablet on which he had made the discovery of the 17-gon, as a souvenir; also a pipe."

Then in this book I found a reference to his bedtime discovery of the 17-gon. It was in a letter from 1819.

Thanks again for brining this to my attention. Very interesting.

Arjen Dijksman said...

Interesting anecdote.

I looked up Ahrens original German version of it (link for understandable English translation by google.translate): "Dort, in Göttingen, fand er am 30. März 1796, noch nicht ganz 19 Jahre alt, die berühmte Konstruktion des 17ecks, oder richtiger, da es sich hierbei nicht um eine einzelne geometrische Aufgabe handelt: die Theorie der Kreisteilung, deren Prinzipien von größter Tragweite, ins besondere für die Höhere Algebra, sind. Nach dieser wichtigen Entdeckung vermochte der bescheidene Jüngling, der selbst zu den Studiengenossen nicht von seinen hochbedeutenden Untersuchungen zu sprechen pflegte, eine "mäßige Freude" gegen Wolfgang Bolyai, den vertrautesten der Freunde, nicht zu verbergen; in der freudigen Aufwallung schenkte er Bolyai als Andenken die Schiefertafel, auf der er jene Rechnung ausgeführt hatte, eine Reliquie, die der Freund mit gebührender Verehrung bis ins Alter aufbewahrte."

In Targu Mures, the place where Farkas Bolyai lived in his old age and died, there's a museum dedicated to his life and work. Maybe we should inquire there?

Pat B said...

Thanks, I tried to send an email at their online site, but got a "fatal error". Will try again.. but maybe someone in the "great cloud" will have knowledge (and pictures?)