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3.6 out of 5 stars
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3.6 out of 5 stars
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on 4 September 2017
As boring as I feared
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on 23 May 2009
What is there still left to measure in the world today? Precious little, one might argue, except for things of infinitisemal size. How different the world must have seemed in the early 18th century, when the principles of Enlightenment were at their peak, and large parts of the map of the world were still black. European scientist had an almost unbound belief in the possibilities of scientific research, and there was plenty to research!

'Measuring the world' captures this era in a beautiful manner, by contrasting two of its giants: the explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859) and the mathematician Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). In many ways, two people couldn't be further apart: Gauss was a child prodigy of humble birth (his father wanted him to become a mason as he himself was), Humboldt the younger of two sons in a prominent Pomeranian family (his father was a major in the Prussian army). Gauss was by all accounts a difficult man to live with: a perfectionist, having difficulties establishing relations with other people (including his own children), impatient and restless. By contrast, Humboldt was ever sociable and friendly, the epitome of the gentleman-explorer, used to moving in the highest circles. Humboldt traversed the globe, Gauss explored the world (the universe rather) sitting behind his desk...

And yet, in a bizarre way, as Kehlmann demonstrates in this splendid book, both men (or rather: his fictionalized versions of them) are as different sides of the same coin, and are ultimately 'mere men', as we all are. Ambitious and confident as they may be when young and in the prime of their lives, and there hardly seemed to be limits to what they could do and achieve, as they grow older (and more and more lonely) they are confronted with the same ruminations, doubts and regrets we probably all are: did I make a difference? Have I done right by my children? Should I have been more caring towards my wife?

You've probably guessed by now that I enjoyed this book a lot. It's insightful, full of (dry) humour and irony, and utterly charming. Splendid!
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on 9 May 2007
A book about marvels that is marvellous in the telling. Out of a seemingly unpromising scenario - two great scientists working in Germany in the early 19th century - Daniel Kehlmann weaves a hugely entertaining story that is also deeply thought-provoking. He writes with a witty, deadpan sort of style that reminded me a bit of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days; there is also a degree of sadness at the end - the book has a melancholic undercurrent. Humboldt and Gauss, the two heroes of the novel, are very different characters involved in very different types of scientific exploration (all of which is perfectly readable to a layman like me with little understanding of mathematics!), yet through these differences Kehlmann explores a time when scientific discoveries we take for granted today were still new, and makes us think about things that are still highly relevant today - not least the issue of fame and celebrity. The writing is wonderful, the characterisation superb, and the fusion of good story, thought-provoking ideas and human experience makes it a winner. A novel that shows you can be literary and intelligent while still being very readable and fun!
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on 8 November 2012
I find that with many books in which their are separate plot lines running in parallel I tend to find one more interesting than the other so that I am disappointed when at chapter end the author switches back to the less engaging one and I am left impatient to get back to the first. For the majority of this novel that is the structure but the excellence of Mr.Kehlmann's work is such that I became totally involved in both character's stories and there was a pang of regret whenever he chose to switch themes. When the principals are intereacting there is an edgy, almost surreal, 'odd couple' relationship between them which is equally fascinating. Added to all this is a fair smattering of layman's level mathematics and natural history to keep you thinking and it all adds up to a totally absorbing portrait of two scientists during the Enlightenment.Highly recommended.
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on 19 September 2017
The following comments refer to the 2007 edition translated into English by Janeway. (I do not speak or read German.)

It is about the lives of two of the greatest men of their era - giants in their fields who made the world a better place by their original thinking. I am well informed about the subjects of their significant contributions but not their lives.

This book is a travesty, ie a parody, in quirky witless language. The purpose of the book is not clear, jumbling facts with fiction is not interesting. Maybe in German, the quirky language is entertaining; in English, it is anything but. I cannot say how much of this is down to the translation.
Read this book if you wish to waste your time. I stopped after 50 pages.

There are other books about these great men, see the one-star reviews for some of them.
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on 9 March 2017
Humboldt and Gauss. Gauss was a child prodigy in the field of mathematics, Humboldt being a Botanical Geographist. Humboldt found inspiration from German Romanticism.
The book is partially a biography of both of their lives and partly fiction. It is beautifully written, has humour and insights into their work.
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on 4 March 2013
An excellent idea to compare the lives of Humboldt and Gauss but, in this case, despite a reasonable translation from the German, it just doesn't come off. Both characters emerge as unsympathetic, chronology of the factual events is distorted for no apparent reason, the style is plodding and there are factual errors ; for example the Humboldt current is described as flowing from north to south, when it flows in the opposite direction. I've read worse books but I definitely would not recommend it, either as a story or as background 'information'.
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on 7 January 2007
It is not uncommon to find fictional accounts of the lives of famous historical figures, nor of encounters between them. Kehlmann's book is unusual in its choice of personalities and in the way in which he creates an entertaining description of the two. In the late eighteenth century, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt had both embarked on the same quest: finding a new way of measuring the world. The two heroes couldn't be more different in character and approach. Gauss believed that "a man alone at his desk" represented the real scientist whereas von Humboldt saw him as a world traveler, collecting the evidence in the field and taking measurements wherever he went. Basing himself on the historical records of their lives and work, Kehlmann has created a tongue-in-cheek intimate portrait of these two scientific giants of their time.

Gauss was a child prodigy from poor lower class background. He became known as the "Prince of Mathematicians" for his mathematical genius and who wrote his major scientific work at the age of 21. His name has been attached to many scientific discoveries including magnetism and astronomy. Not much is known of his private life, though, except for the bare facts of family and jobs that he had to support himself. He treated many of his scientific deductions as too easy and commonsensical to write about, only to be annoyed when somebody else published something related. Today we would say he was a curmudgeon kind of character. Count von Humboldt, on the other hand, came from a well-off aristocratic family and was spoiled for options what to do with his life. He and brother Wilhelm, a diplomat and linguist, have been a household name then and now. Alexander's work as a naturalist and explorer were well publicised during his lifetime. He was the first to explore the geological and botanical diversity of remote regions of Central and Latin America and wrote detailed scientific reports about his findings. He is seen as one of the fathers of biogeography. Later on, his travel bug took him all the way across Russia and almost to China. Late in life, the geniuses meet at the 1828 science congress in Berlin. However, the encounter didn't quite live up to the expectations built over many years of knowing of each other's work in the same area of science.

Kehlmann brings his subjects close to the reader by focusing on a series of episodes from each of their lives, alternating between the two. Written in a lively style, he endears us to their personalities, bringing out their strengths and foibles. He introduces us to their scientific findings in a light-hearted easy-going way that capture the essence without overburdening the reader. Rather than creating long section of dialogue, he lets his protagonists express themselves in indirect dialogue. Allusions to contemporary events and issues are sprinkled throughout the narrative and add an often funny commentary. Measuring the World is a great read and highly recommended. [Friederike Knabe]
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on 4 February 2011
Measuring the World is a somewhat fictionalised double biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. In their parallel lives, both did indeed measure parts of the world, one as a mathematician and surveyor on home ground, the other as an explorer and naturalist.

The book is very readable and follows in the tradition of books like "Longitude". This "mid-brow" terrain is still relatively new to German literature; until recently there was a wide canyon separating the U and the E literature, i.e. the popular and the literary fiction. Novels bridging this gap, possibly starting with Patrick Suesskind's "Perfume" have been rewarded with successful translation deals, and now Kehlmann's book as well.

While it was very entertaining to read, and useful in terms of organising a number of household names of the 19th century into a network of who knew whom (they didn't have facebook back then!), I felt slightly unsure about the fine line between biography and fiction, I mean did Gauss really make that promise to learn Russian as a favour to a Russian prostitute? I'll have to read a proper biography at some point to clarify this important point.
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on 9 January 2007
I found this book distinctly odd. I don't know if if was by design but the translation into English left an unusual flavour in the mouth and to be honest, it made the reading a less than fluent affair. Having been advised by the jacket that the book induced hard laughter and the dialogue totally hilarious, I would have to counter that it never raised even a smile for me and the dialogue was merely unusual. Overall, the whole thing left me with the impression that it had only been translated word for word without any real understanding of English and that the differences in tone between the two languages were unaccounted for. My interest in what were two historical characters was lost in the process. The story lept through years in a swift and sketchy manner, a number of lesser characters were abandoned to their fate and the book tailed off in a very annoying fashion. Possibly in the original language (if you speak it) this book is everything claimed but for me it simply left the impression of having just read a book in german/english without really understanding it. Lacks foth fluency and a sense of humour likely to appeal to most English speakers. Two stars for oddity value and because I'm a sucker for historical fiction.
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