Earlier this spring, before I started this blog, I read german author Daniel Kehlmann´s "Measuring the world" (swedish: "Världens mått"). I was impressed as I was reading it, the book is incredibly well written, well researched (I imagine) and funny. The story revolvs around a fictitious meeting between Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, and in flashbacks their respective stories are told. What they have in common is this urge to measure, hence the title.
However, when I had finished it, I couldn´t help being slightly disappointed. There just didn´t seem to be any point to the story. I didn´t really learn anything, didn´t change my point of view about anything. And the humour was a bit slap-stick in nature. Laughing at people is not nearly as satisfying as laughing with them.
I was reminded of this book when we visited the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This is a smashing museum, not overwhelmingly large, has enthusiastic guides, and it is located in the original Ashmolean, the building erected by Elias Ashmole in 1683 to hold his vast collection of curiosities.
Now, it is mostly instruments of different kinds. And that´s what got me thinking of Kehlmann´s story of Humboldt and his long journey across the south-american continent. This is just the kind of things I imagine he would have lugged along.
Aren´t these things absolutely beautiful? I could post tons of pictures like these.
And what about this: a blackboard written on by Einstein himself during a lecture in 1931. If I remember the guide correctly, it is an estimation of the size of the universe. I would have thought you´d need more numbers to work that out, wouldn´t you?