“He did not believe in nothing, said Humboldt tickly. He believed in the abundance and richness of nature”
I simply fell in love with Measuring the World! A book about science but written like a fairy tale. This historical novel made me wreathed in smiles. Who would imagine that a book can give so much joy?
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, two scientists set out to measure the world. Alexander von Humboldt was a naturalist and a geographer. He spent his life on travelling and measuring everything on the planet; every mountain, hill, cave, volcano, even leaves on the trees were of the most importance for him. He would sacrifice his own body for science. He used to say that even things are frightening, “it was good idea to measure them”. That is why he drank poison to determine its toxicity. On the other hand, Carl Friedrich Gauss was a mathematician and a physicist focusing on number theory, geometry and magnetism. Working at home was his way of exploring the world. He preferred to use his imagination over experiment to prove theories. Consequently he practiced deductive rather than inductive methods.
The approach to the measuring the world was not the only thing contrasted those two geniuses of Enlightenment. Humboldt was an aristocrat, who received the best education. Gauss was son of an illiterate parents and his village teacher was not a highly intelligent man. Further, they could not be more different in terms of relations with women. There was nothing more important than science for Humboldt; women could not distract his attention from measuring another piece of the Earth. In other words, he preferred romance with science rather than romance with women. On the contrary, Gauss could not imagine life without women; he had a lover and he married twice. Nevertheless, science was the biggest love of his life. He postponed his wedding night to write down the idea that just came to his mind.
So what Humboldt and Gauss had in common besides love for science? Both of them were extremely lonely. There was no one in their lives to share their passions with. Simply, nobody was smart enough to become their companion. When Gauss proposed to Johanna for the first time, he was refused. She said that it was not personal, but “she doubt anyone could exist side by side with him”. In fact, home “meant nothing to him”. He was deeply disappointed with his six children who were nothing like him. Another thing connecting two scientists was terrifying vision that they would not go any further; the limits were sources of their unhappiness. There is nothing worse for scientists than the inability to do more research.
Measuring the World is comic and ironic. When Gauss realized that barber pulled wrong tooth he thought “he would have given his soul to live a hundred years when there would be medications for pain and doctors who deserved the name”. When Humboldt was in intimate situation with a woman he was asking himself “how she could fail to understand he was in hell”…the only thing he was concerned with “was a tree he had never inspected until now”. Since their lives were all about science they had to question the existence of God: “God created you the way you were, but then you were supposed to spend your life perpetually apologizing to Him. It wasn’t logical”.
I am deeply impressed with Kehlmann’s writing skills. His humor steals your heart and the only thing you can do is to smile. It is worth noting that he published Measuring the World when he was only 32.
There is something magical and sweet about this novel. Wouldn’t the world be better place to live, if we could read more books like this?