The statistical connection between Gauss and Galton

This entry is an English version of an article originally published in Spanish at the 37th issue of ITAM students’ mathematics and actuarial science magazine, Laberintos e Infinitos.

Both Karl Friedrich Gauss and Sir Francis Galton made big contributions to the development of Statistics. Gauss discovered the method of least squares, not without having a dispute with Legendre. On the other hand, Galton gave us the Law of Regression towards the Mean. A more politically correct name than his original regression toward mediocrity.

This post’s goal is to present both contributions in a brief manner.

Gauss and Least Squares

One of history’s greatest mathematicians, Gauss was born in Brunswick in 1777 and died in Göttingen in 1855. According to Finkel (1901), his favorite field was Number Theory, where he proved on three separate ways that every algebraic equation with integer coeficient has a root of the form \[a + bi.\] Nevertheless, Gauss didn’t limit himself to said Theory. Let us just look at his works, published by the Royal Society of Göttingen: (1) Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, (2) Theory of Numbers, (3) Analysis, (4) Geometry and Method of Least Squares, (5) Mathematical Physiscs, (6) Astronomy and (7) Theoria Motus Corporium Coelestium. One could say he was the last mathematician with universal interests; they also included literature and philology (Finkel 1901).

Karl Frederich Gauss, figure from Gauss (n.d.)

In Statistics’ history, Gauss holds a very special place, since he discovered the Method of Least Squares. The problem Gauss was facing was, according to his own words (Plackett 1972),

to determine the most probable values of a number of unknown quantities from a larger number of observations depending on them. Gauss to Olbers. Brunswick, March 24, 1807

For Gauss, the solution laid in minimizing the sum of the squared differences between observed and computed values. This is the same principle that Legendre published in 1805 and that originated the dispute between both men, that Gauss summarizes as follows (Plackett 1972):

… the principle which I have used since 1794, that the sum of squares must be minimized for the best representation of several quantities which cannot all be represented exactly, is also used in Legendre’s work and is most thoroughly developed. Gauss to Olbers. Brunswick, July 30, 1806


Let \[\{(x_1,y_1),(x_2,y_2),\dots,(x_n,y_n)\}\] be a set of ordered pairs. The problem is to find the straight line that descrive them the best in the sense of least squares. That is, to determine the line \(y=\beta_0+\beta_1x\) that minimizes the following function:

\[ \Delta(\beta_0,\beta_1)=(||\underline{e}||_2)^2.\]

Here, \(||\cdot||_2\) is the 2-norm and \(\underline{e}\) is the fit’s error vector defined as:

\[\underline{e}=(e_1,e_2,\dots,e_n) \quad \text{with}\quad e_i=y_i-(\beta_0+\beta_1x_i) \quad \forall i=1,2,\dots,n.\]

Therefore, our objective function is

\[\Delta(\beta_0,\beta_1)=\sum_{i=1}^n (y_i-\beta_0-\beta_1x_i)^2.\]

We can easily procede to optimize via differentiation and obtain the following normal ecuations system:

\[ n\hat{\beta_0}+\hat{\beta_1}\sum_{i=1}^{n}x_i=\sum_{i=1}^{n}y_i\\ \hat{\beta_0}\left(\sum_{i=1}^{n}x_i\right)+\hat{\beta_1}\sum_{i=1}^{n}x_i^2=\sum_{i=1}^{n}x_iy_i.\]

The 2-norm is chose precisely because of this straightforward nature of the differentiation. If you’re curious, try to see what happens if one chooses the sum of errors (1-norm) as the objective function or any \(p\)-norm with \(p>2\).

If we have at least two different \(x\) values in our observations, then this system has a solution. When we verify second order conditions we get

\[\hat{\beta_1}=\dfrac{\sum\limits_{i=1}^n(x_i-\bar{x})(y_i-\bar{y})}{\sum\limits_{i=1}^n(x_i-\bar{x})^2}\\ \hat{\beta_0}=\bar{y}-\hat{\beta_1}\bar{x}.\]

Thus, our Least Squares line is:

\[\hat{y}=\hat{\beta_0}+\hat{\beta_1}x\\[0.3cm] \hat{y}=\bar{y}+\dfrac{\sum\limits_{i=1}^n(x_i-\bar{x})(y_i-\bar{y})}{\sum\limits_{i=1}^n(x_i-\bar{x})^2}(x-\bar{x}).\]

Galton and Regression toward the Mean

Contrary to least squares, Stigler (1997) says, the concept of Regression was the result of the efforts of only one individual: Sir Francis Galton. This English anthropologist, cousin to Charles Darwin, was born in Dudeston in 1822 and died in Haslemere in 1911. He studied medicine at Birmingham and Cambridge Hospitals. From 1860 onwards, he devoted solely to scientific research. He published in 1869 one of his greatest work, Hereditary Genius (vidas n.d.).

It was precisely in this book where he started to outline the concept by analyzing some `Genius families` like the Bernoulli in mathematics or the Bach in music. Galton, cited by Stigler (1997), proclaimed that

It is a universal rule that the unknown kinsman in any degree of any specified man, is probably more mediocre than he Francis Galton, 1866

In his analysis this was clear. Galton noted there was a marked tendency for eminence to diminish when it came to the relatives of Jacob Bernoulli or Johan Sebastian Bach, specially as the relationship was more distant. Since measuring genius was too complicated, Sir Francis decided to focus on characteristics like stature (Stigler 1997).

Sir Francis Galton, figure from vidas (n.d.)

In 1877, he presented his research about it in a lecture before the Royal Institution. Galton observed the statures of 903 adult children and those of their respective 205 parents (Galton 1886). After adjusting for sex, Galton verified what had been true for his other experiments on seeds, that

… the offspring did not tend to resemble their parent seeds in size, but to be always more mediocre than they- to be smaller than their parents, if the parents were large; to be larger than the parents, if the parents were very small. Galton (1886)

Moreover, his experiments showed that what he called the mean filial regression towards mediocrity was, in the case of human height, of 2/3.

Sir Francis Galton’s result plate, figure from Galton (1886)

Simple Linear Regression Model

Galton wanted to explain children’s height, given their parents’ height. We could think that this relation may be described by a straigth line. That is, let’s call \(Y\) one person’s height and \(X\) her parents’ averaged height. We have

\[ Y = \beta_0+\beta_1X.\] However, we know there are a great (infinite?) number of factors that also come into play. This leads us to think in a conditional probability model \(F(Y|X)\) where \(Y\) is our interest variable and \(X\) a covariate that explains it, so we could call it an explanatory variable. The Linear Regression Model assumes that the following relationship holds, where \(x\) is a known quantity and \(\beta_0,\beta_1\) and \(\sigma^2\) are called parameters:

\[Y|X=x\sim N\left(\beta_0+\beta_1x,\sigma^2\right).\]

Now, we usually don’t know the values of said parameters. Thus, we need to use statistics and do inference about them, making use of the information that we gather from a set of ordered pairs which we assume were generated independently by this model.

Here lays the statistical conection between Gauss and his method of Least Squares.

Gauss-Markov Theorem

Let \(\{(x_1,y_1),(x_2,y_2),\dots,(x_n,y_n)\}\) be a set of \(n\) ordered pairs that satisfy the following:

  1. \(y_i=\beta_0+\beta_1x_i+\epsilon_i\);
  2. \(E[\epsilon_i]=0\);
  3. \(Var(\epsilon_i)=\sigma^2\);
  4. \(Cov(\epsilon_i,\epsilon_j)=0 \qquad \forall\; i\neq j\),

where the first three are true for all \(i=1,2,\dots,n\).


The Least Squares Estimates are the best linear unbiased estimates in the sense of minimal variance

This theorem shows that the best linear estimates for \(\beta_0\) and \(\beta_1\), in the sense of minimal variance, are precisely \(\hat{\beta_0}\) and \(\hat{\beta_1}\), the least square solutions we discussed before. This reinforces the utility of the 2-norm when using the Least Squares Method.

Final thought

It is always interesting to see how the work of great mathematicians interwines and connects in particular ways. What started as an ‘intelectual race’ between Gauss and Legendre, ends up surging because of the interest of an anthropologist in studying the genius, why not, of this very same characters and their families! Today, almost a century and a half later, the linear regression is a very powerful model. Its applications are everywhere due to its flexibility and simplicity, desirable qualities of every mathematical model.


Finkel, B.F. 1901. “Biography: Karl Frederich Gauss.” The American Mathematical Monthly 8 (2): 25–31.
Galton, Francis. 1886. “Regression Towards Mediocrity in Hereditary Stature.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 15: 246–63.
Gauss, La casa de. n.d. “Karl Frederich Gauss.” Accessed August 17, 2014.
Plackett, R. L. 1972. “Studies in the History of Probability and Statistics. XXIX: The Discovery of the Method of Least Squares.” Biometrika 59 (2): 239–51.
Stigler, Stephen M. 1997. “Regression Towards the Mean, Historically Considered.” Statistical Methods in Medical Research 6: 103–14.
vidas, Biografías y. n.d. “Sir Francis Galton.” Accessed August 17, 2014.

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