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Measuring the World: A Novel Hardcover – November 7, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Loosely based on the lives of 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and a contemporary, mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, Kehlmann's novel, a German bestseller widely heralded as an exemplar of "new" German fiction, injects musty history with shots of whimsy and irony. Humboldt voyages to South America to map the Orinoco River, climb the Chimborazo peak in Ecuador and measure "every river, every mountain and every lake in his path." Gauss is the hedgehog to Humboldt's fox, leaping out of bed on his wedding night to jot down a formula and rarely leaving his hometown of Göttingen. The two meet at a scientific congress in 1828, when Germany is in turmoil after the fall of Napoleon. Other luminaries appear throughout the novel, including a senile Immanuel Kant, Louis Daguerre and Thomas Jefferson. The narrative is notable for its brisk pacing, lively prose and wry humor (curmudgeonly Gauss laments, for instance, how "every idiot would be able to... invent the most complete nonsense" about him 200 years hence), which keenly complements Kehlmann's intelligent, if not especially deep, treatment of science, mathematics and reason at the end of the Enlightenment. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* In 1828, scientist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) summons the great mathematician Carl Gauss (1777-1855) to join his party to Berlin, where he is to be feted before embarking on an expedition across Russia to the Urals. The perpetually testy Gauss, whose great trial in life is that everyone else thinks so slowly, which makes virtually any kind of human interaction infuriatingly boring for him (though he does fancy a fine young figure), would go back to sleep, but his wife, Minna, whom he barely tolerates, rousts him out and gets him on the road with youngest son Eugen. They no sooner arrive at Humboldt's mansion than Kehlmann diverges to recap his two principals' lives and careers in chapters alternately concerned with globe-trotting aristocrat Humboldt and genius-from-the-gutter Gauss, who willingly leaves home only to earn a living and escape Minna. The uncomfortable humor of being, in Gauss' case, too brilliant (he frequently bemoans having to live before the innovations he foresees can be constructed or even understood); in Humboldt's, too focused (he scrupulously abjures whole theaters of human experience to concentrate on measuring), suffuses Kehlmann's heady historical novel, which may especially delight science-fiction connoisseurs. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 259 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; Tra edition (November 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424466
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424465
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #805,903 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
"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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
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 ("...
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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