Posted on August 6, 2018 by David B. Farer
Somehow I’d made it this far into my life without ever having heard of Alexander Von Humboldt. Now, thanks to a wonderfully enlightening and beautifully written biography, I’m in a state of wonderment about this man. (Thus the title of this blog, with apologies to Saul Bellow.)
The book is The Invention of Nature — Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015; 473 pp.)
Von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian-born explorer and naturalist, a prodigious writer, a close friend of Goethe, friend and advisor to many including Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar, inspirer of Charles Darwin (who took a copy of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative with him on the Beagle), Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and many, many others.
As a young man, he undertook a five year, groundbreaking exploration of the Americas from 1799 to 1804 (spending much of that time in Latin America, including a year in Venezuela alone), and in 1829, at age 60, undertook another arduous expedition in Russia and Siberia.
As early as the 1790s, he was documenting the impacts of deforestation and deleterious agricultural practices and speaking plainly of the consequences; namely, climate change. During his lifetime, he encouraged climate studies around the world. He investigated the interconnectedness of volcanos around the globe, of global weather patterns (inventing isotherms along the way), compared rock strata across the earth, and studied the negative impacts of human activity on the balance of nature.
Andrea Wulf delves into Von Humboldt’s life in a lucid and engaging manner, documenting his origins, his development as an individual steeped in both science and the arts, his bold, groundbreaking expeditions, the development of his ideas and their exposition in his many books, his dramatic impact on others and the spreading and further development of his ideas by those who followed.
Wulf notes that his contemporaries described him as “the most famous man in the world after Napoleon,” that aside from his numerous books and studies, he wrote on the order of 50,000 letters and received at least double that, and at the same time helped advance the careers and travels of fellow scientists and explorers.
Goethe, Wulf writes, compared Humboldt to a “fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them.”
In 1834, at the age of 65, he began the book he intended to bring together everything he had been studying about nature. The first volume was published in 1845, and he named it Cosmos. A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, drawing the title from the Greek word for “beauty” and “order.”
It became an instant best seller in its original German version, and was translated into ten other languages in the following few years.
“Cosmos,” Wulf writes, “was unlike any previous book about nature. Humboldt took his readers on a journey from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet to its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains.”
By the 1850s, his portrait hung “in palaces as remote as that of the King of Siam in Bangkok,” and “his birthday was celebrated as far away as Hong Kong.”
Wulf describes that John Floyd, the U.S. Secretary of War, “sent Humboldt nine North American maps that showed all of the different towns, counties, mountains and rivers that were named after him,” and noted that thought had been given to renaming the Rockies as “Humboldt Andes.”
He was mourned around the world upon his death in 1859, and then ten years later, on the centenary of his birth, there were celebrations from Australia to America, including commemorations and parades in many of the major cities of the U.S.
And yes, the Humboldt Current and hundreds of plants and animals are also named after him. Wulf even documents that the state of Nevada was nearly named after Von Humboldt. Yet as Wulf describes and then sets out to change, he has been nearly forgotten in the English-speaking world outside of academia.
It’s a great read; stimulating, inspiring and a finely told life of a great man.