It’s well known that today is Darwin’s and Lincoln’s 200th birthdays, and it’s fun to be teaching a history of science course and getting ready to give a talk on some of the goings on of science and writing at about the time that C. R. Darwin’s grandfather was kicking about ideas, including some on evolution. But lately I’ve also been reminded of C. F. Gauss, mostly as a result of talking about him a bit in my other class, a second semester course in physics where we tackle electricity and magnetism. Gauss comes up quite a bit here, as he should.
It’s at that point in the course that I say a little about Gauss’ accomplishments, and how I am especially impressed that the 10 Deutsche Mark bill (before the advent of the Euro) featured Gauss. Not a president or monarch, but a scientist. When I went to Munich to visit Karyn back in our college days, I thought this was a neat thing, but not neat enough that I kept one of these bills. In fact, my physics advisor, so impressed with this when I came back, bought the bill from me. I was happy to get a good exchange and he was happy to have this reminder of Gauss’ impact on society, and how at least in another country every individual could be reminded of this impact on a daily basis.
Ever since, I’ve always wished I’d kept that bill.
A student came to me a few days later with a small gift. As he works in a bank (or makes a habit or robbing them — I didn’t ask), he has access to foreign currency. He brought me the 10 DM bill, as well as some currency from Poland with Copernicus’s image, and from Yugoslavia with Tesla’s. I showed these to students in the history class and have wondered out loud what it says about your society if you value science enough that you would put its practitioners on your currency. Sure, we’ve got Ben Franklin, but surely he’s not on the $100 bill because he cared to fly a kite on a stormy day. What does our choice for who we choose to be pictured on the things that represent value in our country say about what it is that we really value? If we made a campaign to place scientists on currency, who would those be, what kind of discussion would this create, and what would this do for us?

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