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Washington Post Book World
Friday, December 1st, 2006
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Measuring the World

by Daniel Kehlmann

Weird Science

A review by Ron Charles

Measuring the World has sat on the German bestseller list for more than a year and sold more than 750,000 copies. In the American book market, that would require a teenage wizard or at least a conspiracy of crooked Jesuits. But 31-year-old Daniel Kehlmann is entertaining his countrymen with a story about Enlightenment-era scientists and references to isothermal lines and modular arithmetic. This sounds like something to be printed on graph paper, but it's actually more zany than brainy, and laughter almost drowns out the strains of despair running beneath the story.

Two very different scientists are about to meet at a conference in Berlin in 1828. The first is an exasperated curmudgeon named Carl Friedrich Gauss, a genius known "since his first youth as the Prince of Mathematics." At 21, he published a treatise on something called "number theory" (don't ask) that people in the know still consider as fundamental as Newton's Principia. He couldn't be more vexed about having to travel to the conference -- or even to get out of bed -- but "in a moment of weakness," he accepted an invitation from Alexander von Humboldt, whose famous travels around the world founded the field of biogeography.

These two real-life luminaries of German science are the twin subjects of this quirky, charming novel. After their meeting in Berlin -- forced to stand rigid for 15 minutes so that Monsieur Daguerre can record the historic moment with his amazing new camera -- the story switches, chapter by chapter, between moments of each scientist's life.

The son of a humble gardener, Gauss was freakishly precocious. He deduced the process of combustion a few minutes after walking into a room lit with candles; he effortlessly devised a formula for determining the date of Easter; on his first hot-air balloon ride, he realized that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. Gauss comes to earth-shattering realizations about astronomy as easily as the rest of us figure out how to use a doorknob.

But work, war, other people -- they're all just maddening distractions. In one hilarious scene, he breaks away from consummating his marriage to jot down a new formula. Because he has a clear vision of what will be possible in the future, everything about the present day annoys him: not being able to travel by airplane or use anesthetics during surgery or peer through a space-based telescope. "It was both odd and unjust," he thinks, "that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not."

His counterpart is equally brilliant but driven by wanderlust and entirely free of complaint. Humboldt -- a highly repressed homosexual -- hopes to measure everything on the planet, perhaps as a way of mastering a world that he can't seem to participate in normally: "Whenever things were frightening," he writes, "it was a good idea to measure them."

Humboldt's harrowing travels through South America are the funniest parts of the novel. Impervious to pain, he experiences everything with childlike wonder. When zapped by electric eels, for instance, he plunges back into the river and grabs them with both hands until he's so numb and senseless he can barely record the results in his journal. "What a stroke of luck...what a gift!" he gushes. When he finds a new poison in the jungle, he drinks different amounts to determine its toxicity. (Then he tries it on monkeys, keeping them alive through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.) Humboldt's enthusiasm endows him with an armor of naiveté that protects him from cannibals, crocodiles and shipwreck, and his outrageously dangerous travels are the perfect subject for Kehlmann's lightly surreal style, a mixture of comedy, romance and the macabre, with flashes of magical realism that read like Borges in the Black Forest.

Toward the end, the novel's latent sadness rises to the surface. Gauss is eventually consumed with bitterness, while Humboldt grows so famous, so burdened with honors and ceremonies, that he's unable to do any productive work at all. His judgment on the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán rings out with horrible, prophetic irony: "So much civilization and so much horror....What a combination! The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for." After this witty celebration of the country's scientific geniuses, their sad fate is all the more haunting.

Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World.


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