Carl Friedrich Gauss
Meets Immanuel Kant
When he reached Königsberg Gauss was almost out of his mind with exhaustion, back pain, and boredom. He had no money for an inn, so he went straight to the university and got directions from a stupid-looking porter. Like everyone here, the man spoke a peculiar dialect, the streets looked foreign, the shops had signs that were incomprehensible, and the food in the taverns didn't smell like food. He had never been so far from home.

At last he found the address. He knocked; after a long wait a dust-enshrouded old man opened the door and, before Gauss could introduce himself, said the most gracious gentleman was not receiving visitors.

Gauss tried to explain who he was and where he'd come from.

The most gracious gentleman, the servant repeated, was not receiving. He himself had been working here longer than anyone would believe possible and he had never disobeyed an order.

Gauss pulled out letters of recommendation from Zimmerman, Kastner, Lichtenberg, and Pfaff. He insisted, said Gauss again. He could well imagine that there were a lot of visitors and that self-protection was necessary. But, and he must say this unequivocally, he was not just some nobody.

The servant had a think. His lips moved silently, and he didn't seem to know what to do next. Well, he murmured eventually, went inside, and left the door open.

Gauss followed him hesitantly down a short, dark hallway into a little room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the half-light before he saw an ill-fitting window, a table, an armchair, and in it a motionless little dwarf wrapped in blankets: puffy lips, protruding forehead, thin, sharp nose. The eyes were half-open but didn't look at him. The air was so thick that it was almost impossible to breathe. Hoarsely he enquired if this might be the professor.

Who else, said the servant.

He moved over to the armchair and with trembling hands took out a copy of the Disquisitiones, on the flyleaf of which he had inscribed some words of veneration and thanks. He held out the book to the little man, but no hand lifted to take it. The servant instructed him in a whisper to put the book on the table.

In a hushed voice, he made his request: he had ideas he had never been able to share with anyone. For example, it seemed to him that Euclidean space did not, as per the Critique of Pure Reason, dictate the form of our perceptions and thus of all possible varieties of experience, but was, rather, a fiction, a beautiful dream. The truth was extremely strange: the proposition that two given parallel lines never touched each other had never been provable, not by Euclid, not by anyone else. But it wasn't at all obvious, as everyone had always assumed. He, Gauss, was thinking that the proposition was false. Perhaps there were no such things as parallels. Perhaps space also made it possible, provided one had a line and a point next to it, to draw infinite numbers of different parallels through this one point. Only one thing was certain: space was folded, bent, and extremely strange.

It felt good to utter all this out loud for the first time. The words were already coming faster, and his sentences were forming themselves of their own accord. This wasn't just some intellectual game! He maintained that ... He was moving toward the window but a horrified squeak from the little man brought him to a halt. He maintained that a triangle of sufficient size, stretched between three stars out there, if measured exactly would have a different sum of its angles from the hundred-and-eighty-degree assumed total, and thus would prove itself to be a spherical body. When he looked up, gesticulating, he saw the cobwebs on the ceiling, in layers, all woven together into a kind of mat. One day it would be possible to achieve measurements like that! But that was a long way off, and meanwhile he needed the opinion of the only man who wouldn't think he was mad, and would definitely understand him. The man who had taught the world more about space and time than any other human being. He crouched down, so that his face was level with the little man's. He waited. The little eyes looked at him.

Sausage, said Kant.


Buy sausage, said Kant to the servant. And stars. Buy stars too. Gauss stood up.

I have not lost all my manners, said Kant. Gentlemen! A drop of spittle ran down his cheek.

The gracious gentleman was tired, said the servant.

Gauss nodded. The servant stroked Kant's cheek with the back of his hand. The little man smiled weakly. They went out, the servant said goodbye with a silent bow. Gauss would gladly have given him some money, but he had none. At a distance he heard dark voices singing. The prison choir, said the servant. They'd always mightily disturbed the gracious gentleman.

--- From Measuring the World
Daniel Kehlmann
Carol Brown Janeway, Translator
©2006 Pantheon Books
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH