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This book is more an historical account of two scientists (Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich Gauss) than a work of fiction.Daniel Kehlmann weaves interesting fiction around these two brilliant scientists exploring their lives, their view points, their personalities that seem to be completely opposite. Alexander von Humboldt believed that knowledge comes from exploring the world, while Gauss pretty much developed everything sitting in an observatory. 

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Alexander von Humboldt
1769- 1859

Carl Friedrich Gauss
1777- 1855

I will try to summarize the contrasting lives that the book that this book brings out.

Background

Humboldt came from a wealthy family and he used a part of the wealth to explore the world. In modern day parlance he never needed any VC funding. He funded his explorations all by himself. Gauss on the other hand always skirted with poverty in the process of living in the “Numbers” world. He takes up a surveying job to take care of his bread and butter. He remarries second time so that there is someone to take care of his children as he could not afford a nurse. The scientists thus have a contrasting financial background.

Belief

Humboldt’s vision was that of a unified science of earth, vegetation, animals, human beings , a science that integrated everything. He self taught every branch of science. This is really unbelievable stuff if you look at the range of contributions that Humboldt made. He self taught everything be it measurement types, instruments, instrument design, design of experiments, etc. Humboldt believed that “Whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them”. I am reminded of Robert Almgren from NYU who said a similar thing about intra-day volatility. If intra-day volatility is frightening, all the more reason to measure it.

Humboldt also knew that there is no easy way out for knowledge. An incident described in the book strikingly makes this point. Humboldt orders his servant to place two hot cupping glasses on his back so that it produces blisters on his back. He wanted to test some hypothesis about the flow of current. If a person can subject himself to such a torture to understand stuff, his motivation must have been completely different. Somewhere in the book he says,”A great deal of knowledge escapes man because he is afraid of the pain. The man who deliberately undergoes pain learns things that he didn’t. One wanted to know because one wanted to know.”

Gauss on the other hand had markedly different beliefs. For him learning was effortless. He could see things instantly and formed conjectures and theories very easily. A brief balloon ride made him realize that space was curved and parallel lines can meet based on the type of assumptions one made. For Gauss, everything was obvious. He could add up numbers from 1 to 100 with in no time. He could count primes like one counts numbers. He disparaged people who could not match his intellect which included his son too. His looked down upon people who could not think as fast as he could. He sometimes felt that “People wanted Peace. Most People wanted to eat and sleep and have other people be nice to them. What they didn’t want to do was think”. Needless to say with this kind of personality he was a loner and most of his work was result of singular brilliance. Contrast to this, Humboldt was a classic collaborator. His contributions grew by the kind of associations he formed with various scientists, philosophers, mathematicians etc.

Deliberate Practice

Humboldt spent his time practicing stuff before he could make his contribution. For about one year, he took daily measurements of the air pressure, he mapped the magnetic field, tested the air, the water, the earth and color of the sky. He practiced dismantling and reassembling every instrument until he could do it blind, standing on one leg, in rain, surrounded by a herd of fly-tormented cows. He believed that “A hill whose height remained unknown was an insult to his intelligence” and hence spent an enormous time measuring things. The measurements and the travel helped him become universalist. Direct experience through the senses of world, but measured experience made Humboldt a true quantitative researcher.

As for Gauss, he spent a lot of time silently watching the various planets, making measurements of various heavenly bodies. His deliberate practice involved sitting hours , observing and noting measurements diligently. So, this is one commonality of the two geniuses. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of “10k hours to become a genius” seems to holding water in many cases.

Work

Humboldt begins working at mining academy. Unlike today’s mining world, a lot of new theories were put forth by mining experts. He would have learnt a lot of math/ earth science. Biology / geology were just being created around the time of Humboldt. This initial exposure to the mining world made him believe that “Whole world as a lab”. Gauss on the other hand, theorized effortlessly.

Family & Social Life

Gauss contemplated suicide incase his love was to be rejected. To his biggest surprise his love was accepted and he aborted the suicide attempt. Humboldt never married and remained a solitary individual throughout his life. Gauss had a mistress whom he loved more than his second wife. After the death of his first wife, he even considers marrying his mistress but finally doesn’t after being dissuaded by one of his friends. He remarries so that there could be someone to take care of his children as employing a nurse was expensive for him. He hated his children as none could match up his expectations. Gauss spent an enormous time seeing through his telescope in the observatory to take the measurement of the planets, heavenly bodies etc. He practically never had to move to work. His work was entirely sedentary. This is in marked contrast with Humboldt who formed instant connections with strangers who sometimes were part of his major explorations. Humboldt loved travel and hated home. He disliked his mother and never cried when mom died. Gauss on the other hand loved his mother more than anybody else in the world. For him mother came first and only then came others.

Work & Key Achievements

Gauss shot to prominence after he accurately predicted the precise date and time of the appearance of a planet. Subsequently he started studying and working in the field of astronomy.

Humboldt believed that data had to be presented well in order to get insights. He was the first person who was pivotal in making science more visual. During his explorations, he was actively charting stuff, creating new kind of maps( ISO Maps). He was first person who analyzed the world geographically and not historically ( new world vs old world kind of stuff). He was the first person to discover the Natural canal that connects Orinico and Amazon.

His work inspired Darwin who went on to create an outstanding piece of scientific literature – “Origin of Species”. Darwin described him as ‘the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived’. Goethe declared that one learned more from an hour in Humboldt’s company than eight days of studying books and even Napoleon was reputed to be envious of his celebrity.

Humboldt spent 5 years in exploring the world and wrote profusely for the next 30 years. One wonders whether this prolific output is one of the main reasons for him becoming a household name by the turn of century. Most of his written text romanticizes his expedition and findings. The 30 odd volumes describing his measurements and adventures shows that he was totally passionate about his measurements, his explorations etc.

image Takeaway

The book is a clever play on contrasting narrative. Humboldt firmly believed that to become the scientist, you have to travel. Gauss philosophy, on the other hand, can be understood by the following statement from the book:

Gauss observed the moment of the magnetic needle by the light of an oil lamp for hour after hour. No sound penetrated to him. Just as the balloon flight showed him what space was, at some point he would understand the restlessness in the heart of NATURE. One didn’t need to clamber up mountains or torment oneself in the jungle. Whosoever observed the needle was looking in to the interior of the world.

Despite these contrasting life styles and beliefs, both the scientists made ground breaking discoveries. This book delves in to their personalities and provides a fantastic narrative which makes it a worthwhile read.

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