A Passion for Precision
Measuring the World. Daniel Kehlmann. Translated from the
German by Carol Brown Janeway. iv + 259 pp. Pantheon Books, 2006. $23.
Daniel Kehlmann's novel Measuring the World features two
heroes: one who restlessly travels the world in an effort to subsume
nature's diversity to his vision of a unified cosmos, and another
who rarely strays from home yet manages to explore nature's deepest
patterns. The globe-wanderer is Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859),
a naturalist, intrepid explorer and scientific statesman who
compiles a comprehensive catalogue of the American continents, an
achievement that makes him one of Europe's most illustrious
personages in the age of Napoleon. The homebody is Carl Friedrich
Gauss (1777-1855), the preeminent mathematician of the modern era,
whose innovations in number theory and geometry are followed by
discoveries in astronomy and geodesy (the discipline that deals with
determining the size and shape of the Earth and the position of
points on its surface, and with the measurement of its gravitational
and magnetic fields). Around this odd couple Kehlmann has
constructed a marvelous novel, a wry meditation on the idea that
because there is more than one way to measure the world, there is
more than one way to create it anew.
Both Humboldt and Gauss shaped the assumptions of the next
generation of scientists, among them Lord Kelvin (William Thomson),
who once said that if you cannot measure a thing, your knowledge of
it is "unsatisfactory"—with unsatisfactory
to be understood as British understatement for nil. Yet
this remark presumes that the world will sit still for our
measurements and that investigators can agree on the axes along
which they should lay their gauges. Indeed, it is agreement about
what the telling properties of nature are that makes any measurement
of difference meaningful. For the generation of Humboldt and Gauss,
the time was not long past when, as one character tells Humboldt,
Things weren't yet used to being measured. Three stones and
three leaves were not yet the same number, fifteen grams of peas and
fifteen grams of earth were not yet the same weight.
This novel recounts the labors of Gauss and Humboldt to make the
The book opens in 1828; the two men, middle-aged and world-renowned,
are about to meet for the first time in Berlin. Humboldt has invited
Gauss to his first scientific conference; to get there, Gauss has
had to make a traumatic trip from his home in Göttingen. From
there the novel flashes back to tell the life stories of Humboldt
and Gauss in alternating chapters, revealing how their two lives
become increasingly entangled and then, after 1828, drift apart. All
along, the two men share one consuming ambition: a passion for
precision. Indeed, it is this telling similarity that makes their
differences worth assessing.
Humboldt traces new lines of commonality throughout nature:
isotherms (lines connecting points of equal temperature) that link
habitats across altitudes and latitudes; currents of water and air
that encircle the planet; continents now remote that had perhaps
long ago been in contact; even the relics of human civilizations
against which one might assess human progress. Humboldt wrests
knowledge from the Earth through self-discipline,
self-experimentation and even self-immolation. To prove that muscle
fibers convey electrical current, he opens wounds in his back in
which he places electrodes; to access remote biomes, he penetrates
the Amazon and climbs Mount Chimborazo, reaching an altitude higher
than that attained by any previous traveler.
For Humboldt, measurement is a "responsibility" and
"high art," but his instruments cannot gauge the human
heart. Like Candide (that other long-suffering voyager), Kehlmann's
Humboldt remains naive about human cupidity, cruelty and
concupiscence. When an official asks for a bribe, he doesn't notice.
Confronted with evidence that tens of thousands of Aztecs were once
sacrificed in a single day, he refuses to believe it (asserting that
such a thing is at least unthinkable in Germany). And he has no clue
as to why his French colleague Aimé Bonpland slinks off at
night to visit local women.
As portrayed by Kehlmann, the South America that Humboldt visits is
akin to the continent of such magical realists as Jorge Luis Borges
and Gabriel García Márquez. It is subject to its own
dreamlike coherence and reluctant to yield to theodolites (surveying
instruments), barometers and thermometers. Although Humboldt's
frenzied exertions provide the novel with its narrative excitement,
it is refreshing to return intermittently to the cool, gray North,
where Gauss is pursuing his inner voyage.
In Göttingen, Gauss builds a world from numbers, even while
doubting their capacity to express fully that world's plenitude. He
suspects there will never be a formula to calculate the prime
numbers. He wonders whether the laws of nature might be merely
probabilistic. He speculates about the curvature of space. Perhaps
it is Gauss's appreciation of the mutability and accidental nature
of the physical world that makes him a sensualist. He takes delight
in the embrace of his favorite prostitute and that of his first wife
too. He's not so enamored of his second wife, despite having had
three children with her. He likes the fact that there are things he
doesn't understand. He is also irascible and moody, an apolitical
person who is oblivious to social scheming and is infuriated by the
dunderheads around him, including his own son.
One of the book's charms is its ironic touch. We see these great men
through the eyes of their sidekicks: the sardonic Bonpland, who
accompanied Humboldt throughout his American adventures but whose
contributions have since been systematically erased from the
official history of the expedition, and Gauss's ill-fated son Eugen,
who must bear up under his father's contempt. The novel also follows
the two men well past their heroic discoveries into the long
twilight of their fame. One of the novel's themes is the allure of
scientific reputation: Humboldt assiduously cultivates his public
fame, whereas renown comes to Gauss unbidden.
As a card-carrying historian of science, I am duty-bound to note
that the book includes numerous minor deviations from the historical
record. However, I am delighted to report that Kehlmann maintains a
scrupulous imaginative fidelity to his characters and their era. As
a result, his novel is a meditation on creativity, not just in
science but in any human endeavor. The reader sides with Kehlmann
rather than his protagonists when the two men denounce those
novelists who dare to append their own speculations to the lives of
famous people. Yet Kehlmann's self-deprecation and his deliberate
anachronisms only deepen our appreciation for his treatment of
characters who are hopeful about the future despite the realization
that the scientific progress they ardently seek will only overturn
their discoveries and their fame. As Kehlmann has Gauss observe,
It was both odd and unjust, . . . a real example of the
pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a
particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or
not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a
clown vis-à-vis the future.
Kehlmann never uses his hindsight against his characters. As a
result, the story he tells will speak to anyone who has tried to
make sense of the world. Gauss served for a time as a local surveyor
and geodesist, and in later years he speculates that the region he
surveyed had only "achieved its reality" through his
exertions. "Nothing someone had ever measured was now or ever
could be the same as before," Kehlmann has Gauss observe before
wondering "if Humboldt would understand that." Most
readers will understand, I think, by the time they finish this
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