Measuring the World marks the debut of a glorious new talent on the international scene. Young Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann’s brilliant comic novel revolves around the meeting of two colossal geniuses of the Enlightenment.
Late in the eighteenth century, two young Germans set out to measure the world. One of them, the aristocratic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, negotiates jungles, voyages down the Orinoco River, tastes poisons, climbs the highest mountain known to man, counts head lice, and explores and measures every cave and hill he comes across. The other, the reclusive and barely socialized mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, can prove that space is curved without leaving his home. Terrifyingly famous and wildly eccentric, these two polar opposites finally meet in Berlin in 1828, and are immediately embroiled in the turmoil of the post-Napolean world.
Loosely based on the lives of 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and a contemporary, mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, Kehlmann's novel, a German bestseller widely heralded as an exemplar of "new" German fiction, injects musty history with shots of whimsy and irony. Humboldt voyages to South America to map the Orinoco River, climb the Chimborazo peak in Ecuador and measure "every river, every mountain and every lake in his path." Gauss is the hedgehog to Humboldt's fox, leaping out of bed on his wedding night to jot down a formula and rarely leaving his hometown of G ttingen. The two meet at a scientific congress in 1828, when Germany is in turmoil after the fall of Napoleon. Other luminaries appear throughout the novel, including a senile Immanuel Kant, Louis Daguerre and Thomas Jefferson. The narrative is notable for its brisk pacing, lively prose and wry humor (curmudgeonly Gauss laments, for instance, how "every idiot would be able to... invent the most complete nonsense" about him 200 years hence), which keenly complements Kehlmann's intelligent, if not especially deep, treatment of science, mathematics and reason at the end of the Enlightenment.