Measuring the World

Written by Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)
Review by Sally Zigmond

With its lively translation, Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World tells the parallel stories of two scientists who were child prodigies, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. In the early 19th century, the business of measuring, naming and categorizing the known world was in full swing. Both men were straight from the genius mold, famously obsessive. Von Humboldt, born a Prussian aristocrat, spent months traveling to Spain because he had to measure every mountain, cave and river he encountered along the way. Gauss, who was a humble gardener’s son, explored the frontiers of mathematics, and has been called the greatest mathematical mind since Newton. Gauss had a healthy interest in women; however, he is said to have interrupted his wedding night in order to note down a ground-breaking equation.

The strange and occasionally outrageous thought process of these brilliant minds, neither of whom was the least affected by the conventions of that (or any other) time, are wittily and deftly presented. Humboldt’s New World adventures as he explored the Amazon and Orinoco, detailed by letter to newspapers in Paris, are as colorful and compelling as anything imagined by H.G. Wells or Rider Haggard. In short, Kehlmann creates an illuminating and entertaining picture of the end of the Enlightenment and the tangled politics of the post-Napoleonic era among the still- disjointed states of greater Germany. Here are the struggles of a matchless pair of geniuses to procure the resources needed for their pursuit of knowledge, while, for the most part, successfully manipulating bureaucrats, politicians and courtiers. Don’t be afraid of a novel abounding with science and philosophy, translated from a famously dense language. The pages almost turned themselves.