Cover image of "Measuring the World," a fictionalized joint biography of two scientific geniuses

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Measuring the World was a bestseller on its original publication in Germany, where it sold 2.3 million copies. And that was in a country with a population one-quarter the size of America’s. Though they’re unfamiliar to many English-speaking readers, the book’s subjects, geographer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, were instantly recognizable in Germany. They’re major figures in German history. Strangely, the novel, which dramatizes the relationship between the two men, only hints at the importance of the contributions each of them made to science. And much of this fictionalized joint biography veers off from its main theme to dwell at length on Gauss’s hostile relationship with his son, Eugene. In fact, if anything, the story comes across as a portrayal of just how self-centered and nasty Gauss and Humboldt really were. Their pioneering discoveries seem to be taken for granted.

They made monumental contributions to science

Though little known in the United States today, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) are celebrities in their own right in scientific circles. I found six hundred results for “von humboldt biographies” when I searched Amazon, though only twenty-nine for Gauss. In fact, Von Humboldt was a towering figure throughout the world in the nineteenth century, lionized by many of the great men of the age. Thomas Jefferson. Wolfgang von Goethe. Charles Dickens. Simon Bolivar. Charles Darwin. Henry David Thoreau. Without exception, they all regarded him as a genius—and rightly so. Von Humboldt’s contributions to humanity’s understanding of the world were legion, from the ocean currents to volcanoes to the interconnectedness of nature. He was the true father of ecology. By contrast, Gauss’s discoveries in number theory, geometry, probability theory, astronomy, and other fields were esoteric, regarded as monumental by science historians but beyond the reach of all but academic specialists.

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2005) 272 pages ★★★☆☆

Opening screen of the film of this fictionalized joint biography
Author Daniel Kehlmann collaborated on a screenplay of the novel, which was produced in 2012. Pictured are the two central figures, Humboldt and Gauss, as young men. The actor in the center, who played Humboldt, may actually resemble the real man. The other man, playing Gauss, certainly does not. Image: YouTube

A curious and highly fictionalized joint biography

Although the story in Measuring the World spans the ninety years in which the two men lived, Kehlmann dwells on two periods in particular detail. Von Humboldt’s early years as a “natural philosopher,” when he began a series of legendary overseas journeys of exploration. And his and Gauss’s old age, when their arrogance and irascibility was in full flower, each of them thinking the other one’s accomplishments lesser than his own.

I’ve read nothing else about Carl Friedrich Gauss, so I have no way of judging Kehlmann’s assessment of his character. But i’ve learned a lot about Von Humboldt from Andrea Wulf’s superb biography, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Wulf conveys a different impression of the man. If his and Gauss’s lives interest you, I recommend bypassing this curious novel and starting there.

About the author

Photo of Daniel Kehlmann, author of this fictionalized joint biography
Daniel Kehlmann in 2023 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Image: Wikipedia

Measuring the World, written in German and translated into English, is the best-selling German-language book since 1985. Its author, Daniel Kehlmann, was born in Munich in 1975. The list of literary awards he has won in his career—he has been writing since 1997—is as long as his arm. Kehlmann is the author of fourteen novels, four plays, and nine screenplays to date. His paternal grandparents were born Jewish, and his father was in a concentration camp during WWII. Kehlmann currently lives in Berlin. He is married and has a son.

For an excellent biography of the polymath Alexander von Humboldt, see The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (The man who described climate change—in 1800).

You might also care to check out 25 most enlightening historical novels and Top 10 great popular novels.

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