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After listening to an interview and book club segment on The BBC for Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, I read the ebook of the English translation. It is a thoroughly entertaining novel about the nutty Prussian aristocratic scientist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the reclusive and highly irritable mathematician Carl Gauss.
Humboldt was an indefatigable scientist, geographer and explorer who was the first European to thoroughly describe Central and South America. Years ago my husband read me an abridged version of Humboldt’s enormous series of books on his travels in the Americas and the abridged version was fascinating. Apparently publishing the series of books cost Humboldt a small fortune that didn’t pay dividends but he wasn’t a man to do things in half measures. Kehlmann has written a brilliant novel that captures the essence of Humboldt’s brain fever that drove him on and on to explore and describe, beyond the limits of normal human endurance.
Gauss, who you will know for the Gaussian distribution (bell curve) was a genius mathematician and physicist. Whose work on number theory, differential geometry and magnetism continue to be significant.
Both Humboldt and Gauss were concerned with measuring the world. Humboldt focused on elevation, navigation and geographic phenomena while Gauss focused on measuring minute variations in magnetism.
The start of the novel follows two journeys. The first is Humboldt’s great voyage to the America’s and adventures there with his botanist assistant Bonpland. The second is the travel by coach of Gauss from his home in Göttingen to Berlin with his much maligned but sweet son Eugen. The journeys seem enormous even Gauss’s because he is a hermit by that point.
Gauss has great sexual appetites and considers marrying his favourite prostitute while Humboldt harshly suppresses his liking of boys, with a brutal scene in a tent where he kicks and kicks a boy with his boots on after the boy stumbled into his tent during the night. Bonpland seduces women throughout their adventures through central and south America and if Humboldt is aware of this he doesn’t give any sign of it. There is an interesting scene when Humboldt and Bonpland are stuck in a river with a caiman approaching them, another when they are almost frozen and starved of oxygen while trying to summit a high mountain in the Andes but I don’t want to give away here what happens.
This is a book about obsession with categorising and measuring the world, and about being alone and not understood. I loved the book and I think that Kehlmann is a genius to bring these two eccentrics of German science together. Have you read this book? What did you think?
Here are some good reviews that provide more information than I have here!