More than a metre ruler and piece of string needed

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to tackling a book from my Christmas book pile.  I was somewhat sceptical about the title ‘Measuring the World‘ as I neither a enthusiastic nor good mathematician or geographer.  And yet, this was an exceptionally interesting read and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Following the lives of Carl Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, this interweaves their existences and exploits in a very accessible way.  Although not lacking in mathematical terminology, it is possible for even the basest scientists like myself to follow.

If like me you automatically think of squid when the name Humboldt is mentioned, think again.  That was Alexander’s brother.  Their unique upbringing lead them both to be leaders of intellectualism in eighteenth century Prussia.  Baron Alexander von Humboldt had an insatiable appetite for gathering mathematical information, plants and animals.  The book portrays him as a purposeless child who finds his calling after an illness brought on by falling into an icy lake.  The story shows his expeditions through South America with his companion/associate/lackey Bonplant whom he collected in Paris.  Humboldt’s wealth brought his freedom to an extent but his passion for adventure overrode his passion for family life as Kehlmann details the Baron’s infrequent and distressing sexual encounters.

As for Carl Gauss, his more humble beginnings and miraculous grasp of maths lead him to become one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment.    He was not by all accounts an easy man to know particularly if you were his son.  According to Kehlmann, Gauss’ brilliant mind and gift for mathematics was something he was not enthused about.  Neither was he interested in flattering the aristocracy that could grant him his fortune.  

Whether Kehlmann’s narrative of the meeting of Humboldt and Gauss is fact or otherwise, this is still an insightful introduction to two great Prussian minds that are sadly often overlooked.