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3.7 out of 5 stars
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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 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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on 23 March 2013
A tale of Gauss and Humboldt spun together in a fiction built on the skeleton of their actual lives. It carried me along - intrigued, curious, sometime impatient, sometime skimming a few pages - but mostly happily engaged.

You might not find the same happy engagement. I've admired Humboldt's paintings and botanical illustrations in the Berlin Humboldt archive. I've climbed Pico Humboldt in Venezuela. I know a bit about Gauss' scientific thinking. So I was immediately intrigued when I came across this book. Kindle Books offered it to me for just 99p so nothing much to lose!

The author has his two main characters laugh at the thought of someone in the future spinning stories about their lives. I think he's done it rather well.
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I found Measuring the World to be highly entertaining, and I feel that it has is sufficient authenticity to be described as "good enough" to give the readers a worthwhile insight into the lives of the scientists Alexander von Humbolt and Carl Friederich Gauss. I do not have a scientific background and frankly I would have been unlikely to have read anything about these two 18/19th century Germans if I had not stumbled across this book. What I did find was a dramatic account of the way that scientists and geographers developed the means to take accurate measurements of distances, depths and heights using techniques such as triangulation and barometric and magnetic measurements.

Von Humbolt made extensive travels in South and Latin America and Daniel Kehlman successfully (as far as I can tell) captures the adventures they had along the way (I assume the author made use of the over 20 volumes of written accounts that Humbolt left of his journeys). Von Humbolt is portrayed as a man totally dedicated to his science, which could make for a rather mono-chrome novel. However, Kehlman makes dramatic use of Humbolt's rather more colourful travelling companion Aimé Bonpland. While Bonpland is a determined explorer, he is a much more "human" figures whose moral failings provide a hilarious counterpoint to Humbolt's asceticism. Kehlman capture the incredible dangers of their 1750 mile journey up the Amazon in order to find the Casiquiare canal joining the great river with the Orinoco river system.

The single-mindedness of the two explorers is quite incredible. No terrain is too difficult for them to explore, even to the extent of climbing mountains so high that they hallucinate due to the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Torrential rain-storms capsize their boat and they are left stranded in on the banks of deep and dangerous forests. They encounter tribes of indigenous people who use poisoned darts - and learn from them the secrets of the manufacture of the poison, curare. They meet wild animals galore including crocodiles and jaguars and it seems to be only by luck that they escape from forming a tasty meal for these creatures.

Meanwhile back in Germany, we read about Carl Friedrich Gauss, the "Prince of Mathematicians". Again, having no mathematical background myself, I can only say that Kehlmann succeeds in making the incomprehensible at least a little accessible to me, and also reminds me that a mathematical brain is a gift denied to most people. While at school, his teacher fills a gap in the lesson by asking his pupils to add the number 1 to 100 together, a task which young Gauss achieves in seconds.

In later years Gauss was able to calculate the movements of the obscurest planets and predict when they appear, using logarithms (for which he needed no books of tables, having worked them out in his head). But Kehlmann does not just tell his reader about the mathematical Gauss. We learn of his courtship and marriage to his beloved Johanna (who seemed able to tolerate his jumping out of bed during the first night of their marriage to jot down some notes of a formula that just came into his head). Alas, Johanna died in childbirth leaving Gauss bereft for the rest of his life, despite a later marriage.

I have to say, I enjoyed this book greatly. I accept that it is not wholly historically accurate but having read it, I feel that I have definitely got a good impression of these scientists and the type of life they led. The book is in many ways an entertaining romp, with some outlandish adventures along the way. But there is also enough science to make me feel that I've actually learned something I didn't know before. The book reminds me of the incredible sacrifices that these people made to make important discoveries which became the foundations of much later science. The phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" comes to mind, and I at least am grateful to Daniel Kehlmann for providing all this information in such an entertaining way.
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