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A Fine Invention

By Margaret Black

Measuring the World

By Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Pantheon, 259 pages, $23


I no sooner make some blanket pro nouncement about novels that I can’t stand to read—like those whose central characters are real historical figures—than an example comes along that blows my prejudice to pieces. Such is Measuring the World, a deft, ironic, often funny, always insightful tale that plays against each other the life stories of two famous Germans: the genius mathematician-astronomer-physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss and the great naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Author Daniel Kehlmann transforms the men into engrossing fictional figures whose lives happen to encompass the accomplishments ascribed to the historical Gauss and Humboldt. Yet the preoccupations of this book are not the dramas of most novels, but concern, however playfully, the nature of genius and of scientific discovery.

The novel opens in 1828 with an exceedingly cantankerous 55-year-old Gauss traveling to Berlin. He violently hates leaving his home in Göttingen, but the scientific megastar of Europe, Alexander von Humboldt, has insisted he come, and in a moment of weakness, Gauss has agreed. Humboldt, ever alert to informing the public, awaits with a secretary to record their first remarks and Louis Daguerre to photograph the meeting. Gauss and his teenage son are late (trouble with guards at the Prussian border). Tired and exasperated, Gauss speaks no desirable words and refuses to stay still long enough to fix the photographic image. (Gauss will later, almost as an afterthought, solve Daguerre’s technical problem.) In a mere dozen pages, you learn a lot about Gauss, Humboldt, and the wretchedly repressed state of post-Napoleonic Europe.

The author then reverts to the past, alternating chapters that capture the entirely different childhoods and early successes of the two men. Humboldt, the younger son of a minor Prussian nobleman, is, along with his brother, educated to be a great man. Gauss, a working-class boy, receives an education only through the efforts of his illiterate mother and a completely astonished village teacher.

The education stories are terrific. When Humboldt’s father dies, his mother writes to Goethe for advice on how to educate her sons. He tells her “that a pair of brothers in whom the whole panoply of human aspirations so manifested itself, thus promising that the richest possibilities both of action and aesthetic appreciation might become exemplary reality, presented as it were a drama capable of filling the mind with hope and feeding the spirit with much to reflect on.” No one can decipher these comments, so they decide that the elder will become a man of culture, the younger a scientist.

For Gauss we get the famous story of his schoolmaster trying to keep the unruly village schoolboys quiet by having them add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss presents his answer almost instantly. Disbelieving, the schoolmaster demands to know how he arrived at the answer so quickly, and Gauss explains the process. The schoolmaster laboriously adds the numbers one by one, only to discover, of course, that Gauss is correct. This is, essentially, the only mathematical accomplishment that the author spells out. Later ones (number theory, modular arithmetic, quadratic reciprocity), especially those included in Gauss’s Disquisitiones Arithmeticae (completed when he was 21) are alluded to, but Kehlmann knows the innumeracy of most readers. He makes an effort to delineate Gauss’ construction of a 17-sided figure, but mostly he cleverly conveys Gauss’s genius through the speed of his thought and the huge range of his interest.

When his mother dies, young Humboldt throws up his government job supervising mines (he has invented a breathing apparatus, among other things) and departs for Paris. He intends to go on an expedition somewhere, anywhere distant. There he meets Aimé Bonpland, and the two depart on Humboldt’s most famous trip, to South America. There he measures everything, describes everything, experiments with everything (holding electric eels, drinking curare). He finds the natural channel linking the Orinoco and the Amazon, climbs mountains (and establishes vertical climatic zones), explores caves (and discovers how bats navigate), and finds multitudinous new life forms. Even—especially—when death is imminent, he measures, identifies, analyzes, takes samples, although sometimes he also writes letters to his brother (“make sure to publish this in the newspapers”). Our spokesperson throughout this highly comic section is battered, bitten, baffled Bonpland. Despite all, however, Bonpland is forgiving: “. . . and even the dreams, in which he strangled, dismembered, shot, burned, poisoned, or buried Baron Humboldt under stones, were becoming less frequent.”

The Humboldt of this novel refuses to recognize pain, exhaustion, danger, or fear. When asked if he’s seasick, he stoutly maintains he is not as he vomits over the rail. A sort of cheerful naiveté accompanies his total focus on things out there; emotions are simply not part of his baggage.

The author’s Gauss does have personal ties: He loves his mother, he marries twice, he fathers six children. He, too, measures things. He carries out a geodetic survey of the state of Hanover (inventing the heliotrope), and later he analyzes death statistics for the state insurance bank. He is the sort of man who does logarithms in his head and recites prime numbers in moments of tension. He plays with notions of curved space and predicts the path of a planetoid named Ceres that seems to have disappeared. Late in life he even begins learning Russian, and asks Humboldt to convey his admiration to Pushkin. Kehlmann’s Gauss is, however, incapable of conjuring up the feelings of anyone other than himself. Polite or politic behavior is completely beyond him.

The story doesn’t end with the 1828 meeting but carries forward into the men’s old age. On the way, the author manages to pack in conversations about art, radical politics, and one of the best sessions ever with a spiritualist. This book is a compact gem, very like the diamond that Humboldt discovers in Russia.

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