Have you ever wondered what Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss were like as people? You may know some of their accomplishments and where they’re from and when they lived, but what I liked about this book is 1)how they are portrayed, and 2)the way their lives are shown to entwine with each other as well as with other lesser known scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, writers/artists of the time.
Humboldt was focused and ambitious. He knew what he wanted to do and he went and did it, sweeping other people along with him, notably Aime Bonpland. He was bossy and proud, but only as it concerned gathering knowledge for the greater good. Bonpland, for one, couldn’t seem to muster up the energy to stand up to him, and ended up being dragged around the jungle, sick with fever and half dead, just to be an assistant in many of Humboldt’s experiments; many of which he performed on himself and Bonpland. For the sake of science. Humboldt believed that the only way to learn things was to throw your whole self (and whoever was with you) into the experiment. No pain, no gain. They ingested poison just to see how much of it could be withstood. They climbed the highest mountain and lost all sense of themselves while their noses and gums began to bleed. They endured endless mosquitoes and extreme temperatures and unexplained fevers. But nothing would stop Humboldt; science was his life.
So the storm wouldn’t be useless, Humboldt had himself tied to the bow fifteen feet above the water, to measure the height of the waves out clear of the coast. He had hung there for a whole day, from first light until nightfall, the eyepiece of the sextant held to his face. Admittedly he was a little confused after it was over, but also all red, refreshed, and full of good cheer, and had been unable to grasp why the sailors took him for the devil after that.
Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him. He quickly wiped away his tears and went in search of Bonpland.
Gomez asked Bonpland what kind of a person Humboldt was… He knew him better than anyone, said Bonpland. Better than he knew his mother and father, better even than he knew himself. he hadn’t sought this out, but that’s the way it had happened… And?… Bonpland sighed. He had absolutely no idea.
Guass was a crotchety old grump. He liked to stay home and be taken care of by his wife and mother (his first wife – he couldn’t stand the sight if his second). Anyone not as smart as him was an idiot (so, almost everyone), including his own kids. He seemed to be able to just walk around and have brilliant things come to him, and he liked telling people that it was because of him that Napoleon decided not to bombard Gottingen.
[His wedding speech] He stood up and swallowed, and said he had not expected to find happiness, and fundamentally, he didn’t believe in it even now. It seemed to him to be something like a mistake in arithmetic, an error, and he could only hope he would not be caught out. He sat down again and was surprised to see people looking blank. Quietly he asked Joanna if he had said something wrong.
Humboldt didn’t seem to care about the state of his body; Gauss liked to be comfortable. Humboldt didn’t seem to want or need the comfort or pleasure of being with a partner (and denied Bonpland from partaking in this small pleasure as well while traveling together); Gauss often had this top of mind, thinking about his wife and other pretty women. Despite remaining single (or because of), Humboldt seemed content with his life of science and discovery. Despite being married twice and having children (or because of), Gauss didn’t seem content with anything except being alone (at home) with his brain and scientific tools. In fairness to Gauss, though, he did seem happy with his first wife (although not happy enough to stay away from Nina), and after her death he seemed to go even further down the sourpuss road.
… as the first suburbs of Berlin flew past and Humboldt imagined Gauss at that very moment staring through his telescope at heavenly bodies, whose paths he could sum up in simple formulas, all of a sudden he could no longer have said which of them had traveled afar and which of them had always stayed at home.
The subject matter might not be for everyone – the lives and accomplishments of two well-known scientists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But, if this does interest you, then I think you would enjoy getting to know these two more intimately than you might in a biography. Kehlmann’s writing is fluid, light and humorous. He even got quite a few chuckles out of me, and many smiles.
A few good lines:
A hill whose height remained unknown was an insult to intelligence and made him uneasy.
People wanted peace. They wanted to eat and sleep and have other people be nice to them. What they didn’t want to do was think.
If one had to be born, even if nobody had bothered to ask, then one could at least try to accomplish something.
He didn’t know how things were in Berlin. Gauss got to his feet. But in Gottingen he’d never met a young scientist who wasn’t an ass.
It was his duty to keep pain from her. It was not his duty to tell her the truth. Knowledge was painful. There wasn’t a day he didn’t wish he had less of it.
There’s also a good Book to Movie review of Measuring the World at Lizzy’s Literary Life.