Measuring The World

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Physics World

Measuring The World
Daniel Kehlmann
2006 Pantheon 259pp

Like the Bernoullis or the Osmonds, the brothers Humboldt suffer from interchangeability. Faced with a novel that stars one of them alongside Carl Friedrich Gauss, the first question is: which Humboldt? Author Daniel Kehlmann makes a wry joke out of the problem, quickly identifiying his hero as Alexander von Humboldt, traveller and naturalist. Alexander's equally illustrious sibling Wilhelm, founder of Berlin’s eponymous university, is called simply, "the elder brother".

Making these famously confusable men distinct by leaving one without a name is a subtly ironic device typical of the novel as a whole - a surprise bestseller in Germany where it has outsold J. K. Rowling and Dan Brown to become the country's biggest hit since Patrick Süskind's Perfume. But what of the other hero, Gauss? He is the one we meet first, middle-aged and famous, on his way to a science congress in 1828 at which he and Humboldt will join forces to investigate Earth's magnetic field. His personality is summed up in a few broad strokes: brilliant, arrogant, weary of his second wife Minna and cruel to his son Eugen. Gauss lives for mathematics and has little time for anything else, except dalliances with women of ill repute.

Again, Kehlmann tries to set up a strong contrast with the celibate Humboldt, but here the ploy is less effective. As we backtrack through their separate lives in alternating chapters, the two scientists come across as overly similar. Introspective and misunderstood by their contemporaries, they are perilously close to that stock archetype, the eccentric genius. E. M. Forster defined flat characters as ones summed up in a sentence and unchanged throughout a novel. By that reckoning, Kehlmann's Gauss and Humboldt are pancakes.

That need not be a problem; Forster added that most of Dickens' characters are flat. Like Dickens, Kehlmann is a witty, intelligent writer who wears his learning lightly: in contrast to many novels about scientists, this one is gratifyingly free of slab-like expositions of theory pulled straight off the internet. But while many German readers have found it hilarious, Kehlmann's presentation is thoroughly un-Dickensian in completely eschewing direct speech; all the dialogue is instead reported through Kehlmann's cool authorial voice, a distancing effect that can be off-putting and makes the humour harder to catch.

Humboldt, travelling in South America and observing everything from a solar eclipse to the locals' head-lice, is alert to nature but oblivious to art. His attempt to recite Goethe's poem Wanderers Nachtlied is a comically stilted paraphrase, like an Englishman saying, "I wandered over a hill and saw some daffodils." The translator offers an explanatory footnote, but anyone requiring it is unlikely to chuckle at the joke. The same goes for Kehlmann's frequent digs about German humour and personality, which have obvious appeal to a domestic audience but to outsiders are too much like confirmation of prejudice.

Humboldt's extensive travels provide much of the action, and he is humanised by the presence of a foil, his long-suffering assistant Bonpland. The South American setting is an invitation for magical-realist flights of fancy: Humboldt sights ghosts and a UFO. Gauss's parallel story is inevitably more sedentary but in a way more satisfying, since there is love interest in the form of a mistress, a first wife who dies tragically young, and a second quickly married for convenience. All the most famous Gauss legends are told, some exploded (the one about correcting his father's book-keeping aged three is, it seems, a myth). Gauss's achievements are for the most part name-checked rather than explained; it is only with the prediction of the orbit of Ceres and the founding of non-Euclidean geometry that Kehlmann attempts elucidation, ably working them into the narrative as metaphors. Here, though, the scientifically-minded reader may frown. Gauss's geometric inspiration supposedly comes from his first wife Johanna, who points out to him that triangles on a sphere have an angle-sum greater than one hundred and eighty degrees. Soon the young Gauss is speculating about the gravitational bending of starlight; later he ponders Olbers' Paradox and decides that the ether does not exist. It seems that Kehlmann has got his hero mixed up with Riemann and Einstein.

Hindsight is a dangerous thing, and this novel is full of it. Gauss and Humboldt both speculate constantly about future technology - street lighting, photography, air travel - so that what seems at first like cute humour soon becomes repetitive. Eureka moments are plentiful, always occurring at inopportune times, and the scientists do a great deal of high-level hobnobbing; names such as Goethe, Schiller, and Kant litter the pages as frequently as the Rolexes and Porsches of an airport blockbuster, and serve much the same purpose, offering instant recognition with little effort. A more welcome inclusion is physicist Georg Lichtenberg, well known in Germany as a literary figure but under-appreciated elsewhere.

Parallel lines, Kehlmann tells us, must eventually meet, and the two geniuses finally come together for their work on magnetism. The young Weber arrives too, with a pretty wife who quickly takes Gauss's fancy. This is where the book suddenly comes alive, thanks not to Frau Weber but rather Eugen, Gauss's son, who gets mixed up in political activism. It is as if Kehlmann, suddenly free of his self-imposed biographical script, can at last give free rein to his powers of invention, so that in rapid succession we see a police raid and a seance. Alas, the energy is not sustained: Humboldt departs for Asia, Gauss constructs a magnetometer, and Eugen drops out of the narrative until a final escape to America. I hope Kehlmann follows Eugen into a sequel: he is a talented writer, at his best when unburdened by historical fact.