EPS Review #181 - Measuring the World

Measuring the World, by Daniel Kehlmann, Quercus, 2007, 259pp.

My friend Ed recommended this bestselling-in-Germany story about Gauss and von Humboldt. It has been a while since I read the book, but I remember laughing aloud. I should read it again -- it is short enough. Somehow it gets mixed up in my mind with that other excellent novel about scientists, Quicksilver, though this is set 200 years later.

Gauss, the brilliant mathematician, is cranky and selfish. Humboldt, the practical scientist and explorer, is intense and repressed. I found myself wondering if the German appreciation of this book is based on an awareness of being uptight, yet analytic and brilliant, and funny withal. I also wondered how true these portrayals are.

The surrealism of the bits about climbing in South America was witty at first, but there was a little bit too much of it. Gradually the book becomes darker, too.

I marked out the passage where the Humboldt brothers are introduced, since it made me laugh. They decide by tossing a coin which is to be the humanist and which the scientist.

The younger brother, Alexander, was taciturn and frail; he needed encouragement in everything he did and his marks were mediocre. When left to his own devices, he wandered in the woods, collecting beetles and ordering them in categories he made up himself. At the age of nine he followed Benjamin Franklin's design and built a lightning conductor and attached it to the roof of the castle they lived in near the capital. It was only the second anywhere in Germany; the other was in Gottingen, mounted on physics professor Lichtenberg's roof These were the only two places where one was safe from the heavens.

The elder brother looked like an angel. He could talk like a poet and from the earliest age wrote precocious letters to the most famous men in the country. Everyone who met him was dazzled, almost overcome. By thirteen he had mastered two languages, by fourteen four, by fifteen seven. He had never been punished; nobody could even remember him doing anything wrong. With English envoys he talked about economic policy, with the French the dangers of insurrection. Once he locked his younger brother in a cupboard in a distant room. When a servant found the little boy half-unconscious the next day, he swore he'd locked himself in; he knew nobody would believe the truth. Another time he discovered a white powder in his food. He knew enough about chemistry to identify it as rat poison. With trembling hands he pushed the plate away. From the other side of the table his elder brother watched him knowingly, his pale eyes impenetrable.

Humboldt squid are some of the coolest animals ever. Watch them strobing as they attack their prey in this video and this one.