The delightful, clever and entertaining Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) tells us the stories of two eccentric geniuses—the explorer, geographer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician and physicist, Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Our story begins in September 1828 when the German Scientific Congress is being held in Berlin, and a very reluctant Carl Friedrich Gauss (who hasn’t left home in years) has to be physically forced into the carriage to make the journey there. The irritable Gauss, and his son Eugen arrive to be welcomed by the very energetic von Humboldt with his friend Monsieur Daguerre who is testing out photography (or Daguerrotypes). From there, we move back to the past, to von Humboldt’s childhood and Gauss’ and in alternative chapters, hear of each of their ideas, inventions, and adventures before returning to the point of the conference, and going forward from there (interestingly we are never told how he started corresponding).
Gauss and von Humboldt came from very different backgrounds, the former the son of a gardener and the latter the younger son of a minor nobleman. Gauss’ genius is recognised by his village school teacher whom he shocks with his quick mind solving an impossible mathematical problem and then the most difficult mathematics book the teacher had. The teacher first arranges for Gauss to have lessons with a college student and then school in another town, and so begins his journey. In his life he worked on mathematics, physics and astronomy and also held jobs in surveying. Gauss was a man who made great strides with his mind, but was reluctant to travel or move around too much. von Humboldt on the other hand, was his opposite, a genius of a different kind, for whom measuring everything was an obsession and for which he wanted to travel to places where few had been before. Joined by French explorer and botanist Aimé Bonpland, who became his travelling companion and assistant in his adventures, von Humboldt travelled to Trinidad and the Amazon, among others. A daring man, he let nothing deter him and boldly tried many things from eating curare to climbing up to over 18000 feet above sea level with no equipment, and other awe-inspiring feats.
The stories of the two men, and indeed Bonpland too, for that matter are very interesting to read about and in themselves would certainly keep one engaged, but that alone is not what makes this book special. Rather it is the way Kehlmann (and I think the translator did a pretty stellar job getting this across in her translation) writes their stories, that makes the book a wonderful read. The narrative is humorous all through (perhaps more so in the Gauss parts), and Kehlmann brings out the fun side of the characters he is writing about and also pokes fun at himself; Gauss observing at the start for instance:
Even a mind like his own…would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.
Both Gauss and von Humboldt are eccentric in their own ways, and this is brought out really well in the book. But even while focusing on their peculiarities and keeping humour in his writing all through, Kehlmann still gets us to see their genius as well. They had ideas far ahead of their time, and could see things that would come about in the future; look at the same phenomena that we do but see in them what ‘ordinary’ mortals would never be able to:
For instance, when little Gauss is asked by his teacher to work out the sum of the numbers 1 to a 100, he works it out in minutes with this to say:
Adding every number from one to a hundred, that was how you did it. A hundred plus one equals a hundred and one. Ninety-nine plus two equals a hundred and one. Always a hundred and one. Ninety-eight plus three equals a hundred and one. You could do that fifty times. So fifty times a hundred and one.
(I knew the formula for this one, perhaps remembered it from the last time I had read this book or maths lessons(?); yet I had to stop a minute and work out the logic of the explanation—draw a figure so to speak in my head.]
And then there is von Humboldt speaking of the sky:
…the Milky way consisted of twenty million suns…One must therefore ask, why, given so many stars, the sky was not permanently filled with light, why there was so much black out there, and one could not avoid accepting the principle that there was something opposed to light, something that acted as a block in the intervening space, a light-extinguishing ether.
Unsurprisingly, I was again awe-struck.
Of course, being geniuses of that level came with its burdens. Gauss was forever struggling with the slowness of those around him, and disappointed in his children (their not being at his level), and the students he taught who couldn’t follow a thing he said even when he kept things basic. He drew some comfort from his correspondence with the physicist Weber who seemed to think on the same level. Von Humbodlt found others lacked the incessant energy he had, and later when he grew old, even when he made journeys he wanted to, diplomacy and his own reduced strength meant, he could not do all he wished. In his life, his relationship with his older brother was a difficult one, both in a sort of competition with one another to show what they could do. Bonpland too suffered some disappointment for despite his part in the journeys, von Humboldt’s fame meant that he was always overshadowed, and reduced to an assistant.
Written very differently from other historical fiction I have read, this book manages to show us the true genius of these men, their lives, their strengths and also flaws in a way that is not too heavy to follow; rather it keeps us entertained and makes us laugh (a lot) while at the same leaving us marvelling at their minds.