Office of University Relations
SDSM& T News
501 E. St. Joseph Street • Rapid City, SD 57701- 3995
Phone: ( 605) 394- 6082/ 2554 • Fax: ( 605) 394- 6177
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 2, 2000
Contact:
Steve Buchholz, Public Information Manager, 394- 6082
Dr. Donald Teets, Professor of Mathematics, 394- 3452
Dr. Karen Whitehead, VP for Academic Affairs, 394- 2256
Tech duo’s work adds up to math award
What do you get when you combine two curious mathematicians, one of whom speaks German?
You get an interesting article about why one of history’s most famous mathematicians possessed such genius. At the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, you also get a prestigious writing award from the Mathematical Association of America.
Tech’s Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Karen Whitehead and Tech math professor Dr. Donald Teets won an award for examining Carl Friedrich Gauss’ road to stardom. Mathematics Magazine published the article, “ The Discovery of Ceres: How Gauss Became Famous,” in April 1999. The Mathematical Association of America gave the team the Carl B. Allendoerfer Award for writing excellence during the Summer Mathfest held in Los Angeles in August.
“ The article begins with a wonderfully written introduction and fascinating historical background,” the association wrote. “ It then goes on to present clearly the astronomical terminology and Gauss’ solution to the problem. Through the article, the reader gains an appreciation of the significant role that astronomy plays in the history of mathematics.”
In 1801, scientists discovered an asteroid they called Ceres. Astronomers had been unable to calculate the asteroid’s orbit, although they observed it for 40 days until it was lost from view, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Gauss developed a technique for calculating the orbit from just three observations. It was so accurate, several astronomers later in 1801 and early in 1802 were able to relocate Ceres without difficulty.
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Teets started his investigation after he noticed conflicting accounts about who invented the mathematical method called least squares. One book attributes the deed to Gauss, while another asserts that Adrien- Marie Legendre devised it.
Teets found the original article Gauss wrote about his work on Ceres. It was during that work that many say Gauss first used least squares and Teets hoped to find the evidence.
But there was a problem with understanding Gauss’ work. It was written in German and Teets doesn’t read German. That’s where Whitehead came in. She earned a bachelor’s degree in German from the University of Minnesota.
She translated the piece in a week or so and then joined Teets in following Gauss’ mathematical footsteps.
“ The tale about Gauss and Ceres has been told many times,” Teets said. “ But the historical accounts don’t tell how he did it.”
Teets and Whitehead met once a week in the faculty lounge and went through the solution step by step. The article lays out the complicated equations that are based on relatively elementary algebra and trigonometry.
“ It’s a real tribute to his genius that he used fairly simple mathematics,” Teets said. “ What makes it complicated is the way that simple math all fits together. It takes a real genius to do that.”
Teets and Whitehead did not find any explicit reference to least squares in Gauss’ original work, although Teets believes he sees a passing reference to it early in the description. That controversy lives on.
What the team did produce is a complete, step- by- step description of how Gauss calculated Ceres’ orbit.
The Tech duo did not nominate the article for the award. An association committee selected it.
“ It came totally out of the blue,” Whitehead said. “ But it is quite an honor.”
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