Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Daniel Kehlmann

Alexander von Humboldt [Teyler's Museum]

from Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World:

By chance he stumbled upon Galvani's book on electrical current and frogs. Galvani had removed the legs from frogs, then attached two different metals to them, and they had twitched as if alive. Was this something inherent in the legs themselves, which retained some life force, or was the movement of external origin, produced by the difference between the metals, and merely made manifest by the frog parts? Humboldt decided to find out.

He took off his shirt, lay down on the bed, and instructed a servant to attach two cupping glasses to his back. The servant obeyed, and Humboldt's skin produced two large blisters. And now please cut the blisters open! The servant hesitated, Humboldt had to raise his voice, the servant took up the scalpel. It was so sharp that the cut caused almost no pain. Blood dripped onto the floor. Humboldt ordered a piece of zinc to be laid on one of the wounds.

The servant asked if he could stop for a moment, he wasn't feeling well.

Humboldt told him not to be so stupid. As a piece of silver touched the second wound, a painful spasm shot through his back muscles and up into his head. With a shaking hand he made a note: Musculus cucullaris, ongoing prickling sensation in dorsal vertebrae. No doubt about it, this was electricity? Repeat with the silver! He counted four shocks, regularly spaced, then the objects around him lost their color.

When he regained consciousness, the servant was sitting white-faced on the floor, his hands bloody.

Onward, said Humboldt, and with a strange shiver of apprehension he realized that something in him was finding pleasure in this. Now for the frogs!

Oh no, said the servant.

Humboldt asked if he was intending to look for a new job.

The servant laid four dead, meticulously cleaned frogs on Humboldt's bloodied back. But this was quite enough, he said, after all they were both good Christians.

Humboldt ignored him and ordered silver again. The shocks began immediately. With each one, as he saw in the mirror, the frogs jumped as if alive. He bit down on the pillow, the cloth was wet from his tears. The servant giggled hysterically. Humboldt wanted to take notes, but his hands were too weak. Laboriously he got to his feet. The two wounds were running and the liquid coming out of them was so corrosive it was inflaming his skin. Humboldt tried to capture some of it in a glass tube, but his shoulder was swollen up and he couldn't turn round. He looked at the servant.

The servant shook his head.

Very well, said Humboldt, in that case in God's name would he please get the doctor! He wiped his face and waited until he regained the use of his hands so that he could jot down the essentials. There had been a flow of current, he had felt it, and it hadn't come from his body or the frogs, it had come from the chemical antagonism between the metals.]

It wasn't easy to explain to the doctor what had been going on. The servant gave notice the same week, two scars remained, and the treatise on living muscle fiber as a conductor established Humboldt's reputation as a scientist. . . .

Daniel Kehlmann [Eifel Literatur Festival]

Gauss stood up, pushed his velvet cap back on his neck, and went for a walk. The sky was covered with translucent clouds and it looked like rain.

How many hours had he waited in front of his receiver for a sign from her? If Johanna was out there, just like Weber, only further away and somewhere else, why didn’t she use this opportunity? If the dead allowed themselves to be summoned and then packed off again by girls in nightdresses, why would they spurn this first clear device? Gauss blinked. There was something the matter with his eyes, the firmament seemed to be a tracery of cracks. He felt the first drops of rain. Perhaps the dead no longer spoke because they inhabited a more powerful reality, because all this around him already seemed like a dream and a mere half world, a riddle long since solved, but into whose tangles they would have to step again if they wanted to move and make themselves understood. Some tried. The more intelligent avoided it. He sat down on a rock, rainwater ran down over his head and shoulders. Death would come as a recognition of unreality. Then he would grasp what space and time were, the nature of a line, the essence of a number. Maybe he would also grasp why he always felt himself to be a not-quite-successful invention, the copy of someone much more real, placed by a feeble inventor in a curiously second-class universe.

1 comment:

  1. Your interests are so interesting. You are one of the most interested and interesting people I know.