47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2006
This charming little novel is several things at once, as all good books are.
It is a double biography of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, the two German science giants of the 19th century. They both measured the world, but so very differently.
Humboldt by travelling and looking at things and writing down and measuring, literally, about nearly everything that can be measured. The result was a mountain of knowledge, several volumes of descriptions, and one of the foremost travel books of all times, his Travels in South America.
By contrast, Gauss never left home, apart from some inner German border crossings (Germany was a patchwork of kingdoms and principalities at that time). He grew up in very simple social conditions and was recognized as a child genius by a great teacher. Gauss measured the world by observing the stars and by induction.
Both contributed greatly to scientific progress.
Kehlmann bases the Humboldt chapters largely on Humboldt's travels. That makes the book an adventure story in the tradition of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Humboldt's advantage over Maturin: he did not have a captain who kept disturbing his research by calling him back to sea. Another one: he was really "real", Maturin is "only" literature. One wonders why the two did not meet.
This is surely the most appealing piece of fiction translated from German since Patrick Suesskind's Perfume in the 80s.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
"Measuring the World" compares and contrasts the lives and accomplishments of adventuresome naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and primarily sedentary mathematician/astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss. Novelist Daniel Kehlmann opens with an amusing meeting of the two fifty-something notables at the 1828 German Scientific Congress in Berlin. Then he proceeds to tells stories (factual in the main, but with a few, minor liberties) to catch the reader up chronologically, switching between scientists with each chapter. Kehlmann pokes sly fun at Gauss and Humboldt by rendering them as cartoonish grumbler and bumbling virgin respectively. German society of the period doesn't escape satirical treatment either. This waggish unreality tinges everything and everyone, yet the book doesn't tip into such buffoonery that readers can't be awed and enveloped. Take the Humboldt party's arduous adventures on the Orinoco River. Or Kehlmann's enthralling version of Humboldt and companion Bonpland's mountain trek up thousands of feet breathing thinnest air, crossing frail ice bridges and hallucinating entertainingly as they push on. Gauss, master of deduction (as opposed to Humboldt's inductive inclination), has to settle for a less exciting recollection of his life episodes since he lived more inside his head and in classrooms. The author doesn't aim at comprehensive biographical detail, but rather at signifying scenes. Catching up to 1828, Kehlmann returns to Gauss and Humboldt at the Congress, where they spend less time on science than on a muddled mission aiming to snatch Gauss' son, Eugen, from the clutches of the police. Thereafter, the two men part again. When Humboldt makes his subsequent trip to Russia, he is greeted as an icon, but the pomp and circumstance hinders his actually collecting samples or taking measurements as he did on his earlier explorations in South America. He finds his methods outdated anyway. Gauss, who didn't bother to publish many of his visionary ideas (such as radio) when they first formed in his mind (ahead of those who were actually credited later), also finds that he is a revered professor, but his defining and most august work was completed before he was twenty and he exists now as a reputation, a legend in his own time rather than an ongoing contributor. These two measurers of the world are let lie in a kind of pensive limbo at the end of the penultimate chapter. The final chapter follows Eugen Gauss who is traveling, due to his legal woes, to the New World where, not coincidentally, the innovative edge of science is also shifting. His voyage also symbolizes the scientific methods of Gauss and Humboldt merging.
This English translation of Kehlmann's German novel is a unique read. It is ironic yet moving, oddly structured and perhaps too compressed yet fulfilling, and packed with German inside jokes that Americans might not pick up on yet still carrying plenty of humor that can be. It is also a book that opens many doors for thought about science, scientists, and the human condition. "Measuring the World" deserves to be read and pondered.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
What a clever little story: paralleling the lives of two of the 18th-19th centuries' greatest men of science as they re-imagine the world. One trajectory follows Alexander von Humboldt as he explores the Americas with his instruments, measuring nature (magnetic currents, temperatures at different elevations, the distribution of flora and fauna) and describing the world in a way never before possible. The other trajectory plots the path of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the mathematical prodigy who rarely left his little German kingdom, yet expanded the inner universe of mathematics more than any thinker before him, making it possible to understand the outer world like never before.
In Kehlmann's artful prose, the lives of Humboldt and Gauss are like parallel lines tracking next to each other--aware of each other's existence, but never touching--until Kehlmann brings them together (as Gauss always new, parallel lines do cross! space is curved!), their lives and their physical and mathematical measurements having measured a world bigger than both of them (as great as they were individually) could have imagined. And each of them realizes the usefulness of the other: measuring the world means investigating nature physically and mathematically. They needed each other all along.
In this empathetic historical novel, Kehlmann emphasizes the anxiety and desperation of both his primary characters: Humboldt's desire to explore South America even if it means risking his life ("Humboldt slid down a scree slope. His hands and face were scraped bloody, and his coat torn, but the barometer didn't break.") and Gauss's tragic wish to be more, and know more, than his circumstances allow ("...the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not," Gauss laments).
As far as imagining an historical moment, one when two great thinkers thought of new ways to understand the world, Kehlmann's short book is an intelligent, eloquent recreation of the lives and endeavors of Humboldt and Gauss. This is a novel reminiscent of Alan Lightman's `Einstein's Dreams,' Russell McCormmach's `Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist,' and even Vonnegut's `Slaughterhouse Five.'
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
It is not uncommon to find fictional accounts of the lives of famous historical figures, nor of encounters between them. Kehlmann's book is unusual in its choice of personalities and in the way in which he creates an entertaining description of the two. In the late eighteenth century, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt had both embarked on the same quest: finding a new way of measuring the world. The two heroes couldn't be more different in character and approach. Gauss believed that "a man alone at his desk" represented the real scientist whereas von Humboldt saw him as a world traveler, collecting the evidence in the field and taking measurements wherever he went. Basing himself on the historical records of their lives and work, Kehlmann has created a tongue-in-cheek intimate portrait of these two scientific giants of their time.
Gauss was a child prodigy from poor lower class background. He became known as the "Prince of Mathematicians" for his mathematical genius and who wrote his major scientific work at the age of 21. His name has been attached to many scientific discoveries including magnetism and astronomy. Not much is known of his private life, though, except for the bare facts of family and jobs that he had to support himself. He treated many of his scientific deductions as too easy and commonsensical to write about, only to be annoyed when somebody else published something related. Today we would say he was a curmudgeon kind of character. Count von Humboldt, on the other hand, came from a well-off aristocratic family and was spoiled for options what to do with his life. He and brother Wilhelm, a diplomat and linguist, have been a household name then and now, at least in German speaking countries. Alexander's work as a naturalist and explorer were well publicized during his lifetime. He was the first to explore the geological and botanical diversity of remote regions of Central and Latin America and wrote detailed scientific reports about his findings. He is seen as one of the fathers of biogeography. Later on, his travel bug took him all the way across Russia and almost to China. Late in life, the geniuses meet at the 1828 science congress in Berlin. However, the encounter didn't quite live up to the expectations built over many years of knowing of each other's work in the same area of science.
Kehlmann brings his subjects close to the reader by focusing on a series of episodes from each of their lives, alternating between the two. Written in a lively style, he endears us to their personalities, bringing out their strengths and foibles. He introduces us to their scientific findings in a light-hearted easy-going way that capture the essence without overburdening the reader. Rather than creating long section of dialogue, he lets his protagonists express themselves in indirect dialogue. Allusions to contemporary events and issues are sprinkled throughout the narrative and add an often funny commentary. Measuring the World is a great read and highly recommended. [Friederike Knabe]
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2007
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann is a tongue in cheek biographic novel contrasting two heros of the romantic enlightenment, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. Gauss is a dispeptic and erratic genius lacking the will or capacity for social intercourse being unable to overcome his intolerance of lesser minds. He stays at home, making great demands on all around him, oblivious to wars and human turmoil, travelling the universe through mathematical theories of fundamental phenomena. By contrast, Humboldt is imperturbably energetic, with a restless itch to travel, discover, define, quantify and describe the world around and its emotional impacts on the observer. Measurement trumps ignorance, fear and superstition. Failed plans are forgotten in an instant, superceded by others. Humboldt is also the complete diplomat, ready for any situation or society, always with one eye on the mirror of posterity. Yet perhaps they are not completely dissimilar; Humboldt's manipulations exert a similar toll on those close at hand. Their lives intersect with each other and with other great romantics, including Goethe, Schiller, Georg Forster and Wilhelm Humboldt (Alexander's brother, the linguist and politician, who is near as well famed but regularly, to his annoyance, mistaken for his scientist sibling). They are molded by the political circumstances of 18th century Europe and the Americas: anachronisms and new ideas, in process or prospect of social revolution. Our heros weary with age, their sharp focus dulls, and their energy is dissipated in the bureaucracy of fame. They are forced into uncomfortable compromises and they lose the ability to dictate their lives on brilliance alone.
I particularly liked the fidelity to Humboldt's writings (I hope it is as well done for Gauss). Kehlman's images of anecdotes from "Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent" (just an excerpt from Humboldt's momentous volumes on the Americas) are so vibrant that you feel claustrophobia in the jungle and sense the incredulity of locals, with their own forms of explanation, to this mad Prussian baron who collects skeletons for science. There are tales of the echolocating oilbirds in the caves of the dead, an adopted dog which disappears in green wilderness along the Orinoco, Humboldt's mystical encounter with a jaguar, a bloody experiment in Cuba involving dogs and crocodilians, a random attack by a madman on Amé Bonpland - Humboldt's collaborator (or assistant, depending on who is asked) - and the deprivations suffered on their climb higher then anyone before on Chimborazo (then believed the highest mountain on earth). If these events were not chronicled through Humboldt's romantic lens they would seem novelists' fantasies. In his later years Humboldt became somewhat of an icon, stifled and overshadowed by his own devotees, including Darwin. Gauss similarly discovers ambition in its breach, through the publication by associates of ideas he had years before but never bothered to write down. Much like Darwin, when confronted with Wallace's succinct description of evolution by natural selection, these breakthroughs are sent to Gauss for review - his response gains him a reputation in Russia as a plagiarist.
As important as these episodes are those curious ellipses in Humboldt's writing (some perhaps from later editors, in response to his digressions). Kehlman portrays these as evasions, short-cuts and unexpected hiccups in an otherwise dogged and methodical commitment to the measurement of the world. Nor does the book shy away from some deeper ommissions - it discretely portrays Humboldt as a self-repressed homosexual misogynist - prudish and hysterical. Gauss, on the other hand, finds release from the slow witted through Nina (among others), a prostitute in a Göttingen brothel. Despite intellect and promises he never does learn Russian. In any case, both Gauss and Humboldt emerge as human, fallible and worthy of respect.
Like good histories this novel chimes with current and timeless resonance. The subtext considers the nature of exploration and discovery, human relationships, the individual versus public image, and a nexus between science and society. Introspection into "the German character" - methodical? dedicated? expansive? ruthlessly ambitious? humorless? - is playfully written in contrasting terms. Gauss even decries the novel's genre (as did a stuffy review of the novel in the newsletter of the Mathematical Society of America). The characters' perspectives on the world contrast with their personalities but both feel that their life's work is misunderstood. Humboldt's disbelief at the self-destructive bloodcraze that preceeded the collapse of the world's most technologically advanced society, the Aztecs, probably refers not only to Nazi Germany but to the USA today (a more pointed insinuation is given as a rebuke to Humboldt, when in the US, for his impolitic disgust at slavery; Jefferson, the leader of this brave new world, has plantations). Humboldt moans that he sought only to visit, measure and describe while notables laud him for things (Russian diamonds) that he never found. Gauss is miserably optimistic about the future; trivial tasks of today will be performed by machines tomorrow, small discomforts, medical ailments, and impediments to communication will be similarly solved, perhaps everyone will understand calculus. Unfortunately, he must live in a present (~200 years ago), in which his formulae will not be understood or correctly applied and he must cope with the pedestrian annoyances of his wife, an unattractive daughter and a son who thinks too slow!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
As others have pointed out, this is an interleaved biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, two of the greatest German men of science at the start of the nineteenth century. Despite being contemporaries, they are as different as could be in background and methods: Gauss, from a modest family, is a stay-at-home thinker; the aristocratic Humboldt finds fame as a world explorer. For two-thirds of the book, Kehlmann tells their separate stories in alternating chapters. He is particularly entertaining when describing the intrepid but rather naif Humboldt, who climbs Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, and tastes curare to prove it is not poisonous when ingested, but is shocked to discover than women have body hair just like men. Kehlmann narrates all this in a deadpan style that is often very funny. He has a harder time conveying the importance of Gauss to mathematics; unlike other recent novels about mathematicians such as David Leavitt's THE INDIAN CLERK or Yoko Ogawa's THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR, he avoids anything technical, making it difficult to show the man as much more than a misanthrope at first. More comes through towards the end when Gauss turns his mind to more practical matters such as chemistry, physics, and technology.
Indeed, this seems to be the main thrust of the book, that Gauss becomes more practical whereas Humboldt, who started as the supreme man of action, ends virtually emasculated by his own fame. But since there is really very little to connect the two men other than the author's demonstration of their differences, the final sections of the book, when the two men finally meet, seem narratively contrived and tail off into confusion. In some respects the novel is reminiscent of ARTHUR AND GEORGE by Julian Barnes, which also starts with two separate historical characters, and also ends in deliberate anticlimax. But whereas Barnes focuses on a real encounter that changed the lives of both protagonists, Kehlmann's great scientists pass like ships in the night. All the same, Humboldt's realization as he is returning from an exhausting and fruitless tour of Russia is apropos and poignant: "But as the first suburbs of Berlin flew past and Humboldt imagined Gauss at that very moment staring through his telescope at heavenly bodies, whose paths he could sum up in simple formulas, all of a sudden he could no longer have said which of them had traveled afar and which of them had always stayed at home."
Over and above the story of these two men, the book offers a fascinating glimpse of the intellectual climate in Germany in the early 1800s, an interesting pendant to the more delicate portrait of early German romanticism painted by Penelope Fitzgerald in THE BLUE FLOWER, her novel about the poet Novalis.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2012
3.75 stars seem arbitrary enough. No doubt an incomplete measurement of this account of the unique friendship of Alexander Humboldt - naturalist/explorer/botanist/bon vivant - and Carl Friedrich Gauss, mathematician. Their accomplishments in the hard sciences, a matter of record and nothing short of remarkable, are not rendered less so given the obstacles to inquiry routinely encountered in the pre-motorized, pre-tech, pre-digital-by-a-long-shot world. Pure reason never had greater, nor more dedicated, advocates.
Life, however, is not pure reason, something that Daniel Kehlmann's deadpan, indirect discourse, faux-didactic tone captures well. And herein lies the only - minor - fault I find with the book; it's not with the tale, but with the telling of it. Marked throughout by a deliciously dry humor as well as an apparent deep regard for the work of Humboldt and Gauss, nonetheless this mythical account feels slightly too cartoonish at times. While one applauds Kehlmann for finding the right tone in order to bring the lives of these men to a popular audience, one regrets that it has to be so. But that's a minor complaint, and now that I think about it, rightly a fault more belonging to readers than to writers.
An easy yet, oddly and occasionally, wince-inducing read which argues that despite our boundless ingenuity as a species and our right insistence on scientific rigor, there are certain matters - of heart - which remain immeasurable.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2007
In September 1828, Professor Carl Friedrich Gauss sets out, reluctantly, to attend the German Scientific Congress in Berlin. Gauss, a mathematician and phyicist, will meet Alexander von Humboldt, naturalist and explorer. And so begins a delightful novel, full of humour and contrast.
At the end of the 18th century two brilliant young Germans attempt to measure the world. Alexander von Humboldt journeys to South America and undertakes all manner of physical adventures. By contrast, Carl Friedrich Gauss, does not need to leave his home town to learn that parallel lines meet and space is curved.
Those interested in the life, times and discoveries of these brilliant scientists will quench that thirst elsewhere. This novel is for those who enjoy reading fiction, imbued with subtle and sometimes sly humour, in which real people feature. Some of the irony is delicious: a scientist concerned with space who does not like travel.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2010
It is the dawn of 19th century. The age of discovery. Age of old monarchies still alive and kicking. Age of big movements which will define century to come, age of wonder, colonization and warfare. We're in what will eventually become Germany, and lives of two great scientist are being laid in front of our eyes. Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. Inside their heads, world looks a bit different then in the eyes of the common men. It's full of numbers. And problems. And solutions. Each in his own respected field, both will try to further up the understanding of the world that surrounds us. One will do it by thought alone, other will do it by exploring the unknown corners of the world. Both will have to navigate through the politics of their times, one will have to struggle with existence, and both will be aliens to their own society. Respected aliens, but aliens nevertheless. They will never learn of society, and will never be able to understand the people around them, but they will, simply put, not be able to stop because they won't be able to perceive the world as anything else. And precisely on that point, this book stops being the narrative about lives of Humboldt and Gauss, and becomes ironic metaphor of our world and our times. And of science itself.
Word genius comes to mind, but not in a way romanticists have envisioned it. It comes more in a manner of curse, more like some unknown doom than anything else. Neither Gauss nor Humboldt will completely understand this as they trod along their, almost predestined, paths. They will be able to do what no one else has done before them, but personal happiness is something that will follow different rules.
Kehlmann writes about Gauss and Humboldt in twofold manner. With a bit of awe, and a bit of sadness fuelling his script. Awe he cannot suppress, because individuals like those two fascinate him. Sadness he cannot suppress because he understands, and reader will slowly come to realization of this, that even those two geniuses didn't know anything at all. And it's not about the time they lived in. It wouldn't be much different even today. It's not about advancing some scientific field or another, it's about how intense life of the thought can be, and how desolate it can become. Every now and then we hear about new mathematical child-genius being discovered, and then we stop hearing about him. Most often than not he will be swallowed inside the walls of some mega-corporation, or will slowly die in some shack of banal reason as not being able to earn a living - never actually able to grasp the concept. And, if by a weird chance he survives this trial, he will be shunned by a society, forever weird and forever carrying the mark of the Other. It's all well and ok if the person in question can cope with this. But stability of identity or even identity itself doesn't necessarily come with genius. Humboldt understood this by the end of the novel, in which he experienced firsthand the power of identity as defined by others. Gauss never did, but one can argue that beside his vast mathematical intellect, he failed as a person, bringing nothing but misery to those around him. Kehlmann explores this theme throughout the novel. Novel itself being more musings about science and human condition than biographical novel.
Did Kehlmann managed to solve the problem? Unlikely. He showed us the great scope of things, and in that shoving he managed to create enchanting story which resonates through time. In a way, it summons the Age past, and on the other hand it stays firmly rooted in present. Historical novel should always be doing this. It should always strive to explain the present through means of history. Mere action/romance novel that happens in some forgotten age cannot begin to compare with this. This one is for those of you who do not think that history is just a mere collection of funny dresses and weird habits. Maybe you'll find something that speaks for you here as well.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2007
Very entertaining and refreshingly different. I enjoyed reading about these two great minds, their quirks, thoughts, and lives. The writing style was rich without being overdone. I liked the feel that the lack of quotation marks gave. They were not missed at all. Overall, wonderful.