Mentom - Singapore 2012

© Mentom – May 2012

Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann

Sunday 14 June 2009, by Mentom

All the versions of this article:

  • English

This weekend I really took my time "off", what did not happen for a long period of time. I left the laptop and the cell phone in the suitcase, and went exploring some hiking trails on islands around Hong Kong. Taking my time sitting at remote beaches led to all sorts of reflections, some of which I decided to put into action, starting today.

The first one was to always put some sun cream, even if the sky looks cloudy. I always forget that one and again I am looking at a lobster in my mirror at the bathroom.

The second one was that seafood around Hong Kong is always excellent. You can have it "just out of the sea", eye-witnessing your dinner beeing handed over from the fishing boat to the restaurant.

The third one was to put some more effort to maintain this website. So many things happen and I have tons of all sorts of travel experience, read books and articles and just general thoughts to share. But just when I settle down to write something, I already have to rush somewhere else. With the lapsed time the first impression already faints and I feel less motivated to write about it...

All this long introduction is to say that I will put posts more frequently in the future.

The book "Measuring the World", also available in French as "Les arpenteurs du monde" and in the original German version "Die Vermessung der Welt" landed on my desk after a german friend left back to Europe after his visit. "You certainly don’t have many german books in Asia" she said when leaving. Luckily the Japanese bookstore in Singapore has books in German and French, but it is true I am always thankful for a book in those two languages!

The novel builds the story around two men who really existed; at the same time and about the same location: the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and the mathematician and physist Carl Gauss (1777-1855). Although their fates and lifes unfold independently, they finally get to know each other and the two stories become one.

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Alexander von Humboldt

Both Humboldt and Gauss want to measure the world : Humboldt the geographer measures every distance on his travels; while Gauss sits at home and does the abstract thinking to achieve a comparable result.

The reader learns as much on the historic facts as on the character of the two scientists; and what is driving them: Humboldt the explorer, curious, without fear and eager to make a place in history. Gauss the prodigy, intolerant and arrogant with the "less gifted", making his discoveries just "happen". The novel is easy-reading, full of humor and in the same time full of material for reflection for today’s "measurement" - state of the world.

We join Humboldt transporting Indian mummies on the Orinoco river, to the horror of his companions. We learn that Gauss does not know that Napoleon invaded Prussia and even once he learns it, he does not get the importance of this news.

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Carl Friedrich Gauss

Only when already aged and covered with glory the two men meet and Gauss’ son Eugene will to some extent become the continuation of the two in one person.

I highly recommend this book, as source of entertainment, history and biography, human psychology and finally reflection on our today’s World, all in one.

Finally, it gives some appetite to read Humboldt’s travel books such as the "Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America".


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