An acclaimed German author explores the lighter side of the Enlightenment in his first English translation.
Carl Friedrich Gauss, “the Prince of Mathematics,” was born in Germany in 1777. A fiendishly prolific mind, he transformed the fields of geometry, astronomy and physics, and his magisterial Disquisitiones Arithmeticae—completed when he was all of 24—remains an important work. Born in Prussia in 1769, Alexander von Humboldt became the first naturalist to submit the plants, animals and terrain of Central and South America to sustained scientific scrutiny. He would become one of the most famous men in Europe, hailed as a “second Columbus.” Here, in his sixth book, the prolific author (b. 1975) turns these illustrious figures into two of the most distinctive and engaging characters in recent fiction. Gauss begins life as a child prodigy, a little genius who can’t understand why everyone else thinks so slowly, and he only grows more impatient with age. As an adult, Gauss is confounded not just by the idiocy of his fellows, but by the whole benighted world to which he is confined. Gauss is slightly troubled by the realization that space is curved, but he’s really aggravated by the knowledge that he’s stuck with the horse-drawn coach while, one day, machines will make travel fast and comfortable. If Gauss is somewhat superhuman, Humboldt is almost otherworldly. Educated according to a system devised by Goethe, Humboldt is raised to be a scientist. Eschewing the messier aspects of life, he prefers quantifying and categorizing. Travels in the New World, which might, for another man, be an opportunity for adventure, are for Humboldt a chance to measure the altitude of mountains, catalogue the plants that grow in volcanoes and count the lice on the heads of native women. When these two meet, in 1828, each finds the other exasperating, but the two old luminaries end up being something like soul mates. Steeped in German classicism and set against the topsy-turvy politics of the Napoleonic wars, this is a wonderfully entertaining depiction of an era, but, more importantly, a warm, playful portrait of two delightfully improbable men.