The Invention of Nature & the Lost Hero of Science – Alexander Von Humboldt

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Alexander Von Humboldt (1769 – 1859), is called ‘the great lost scientist’ for good reason. The towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the Humboldt Current that runs along the coast of Chile and Peru, the dozens of monuments, parks, and mountains in Latin America including Sierra Humboldt in Mexico and Pico Humboldt in Venezuela, a town in Argentina, a river in Brazil, a geyser in Ecuador, a bay in Colombia, then a Kap Humboldt  and Humbold Glacier in Greenland, a mountain range in northern China, South Africa, New Zealand and Antarctica, also there are rivers and waterfalls in Tasmania and New Zealand, as well as parks in Germany and Rue Alexandre de Humboldt in Paris, also in North America there are alone four counties, thirteen towns, mountains, bays, lakes and a river, the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California and Humboldt Parks in Chicago and Buffalo, also almost 300 plants including the Californian Humboldt lily, and and more than 100 animals, including the South American penguin and the six-foot ferocious Humboldt squid, also several minerals like Humboldtit and Humboldtin, as well as an area on the moon called ‘Mare Humboldtianum’ – all named after him. To this day many German-speaking schools across Latin America hold a biannual athletic competition called Juegos Humboldt – Humboldt Games.

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Below is Paracas coastline in Peru:

Below is Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California:

Below are Humboldt Falls in Milford Sound, New Zealand:

As early as 1800, Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change and his contemporaries called him ‘the greatest man since Deluge’; he really influenced the way we see nature today. He provided proof that nothing exists in isolation; he found connections everywhere and demolished the view of the tunnel vision where a plant, a tree or a forest are all examined as individual cases, unrelated to each other. Humboldt was the first to notice and explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its temperature lowering effect, as well as its importance for retaining water and protecting against soil erosion.

The two pictures below are of Humboldt National Park in Cuba:

Humboldt’s intellect and his prolific writing influenced many thinkers, artists, and scientists, including Charles Darwin, who wrote: ‘nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative’, and that ‘ he would not have boarded the Beagle, nor conceived of the Origin of Species, without Humboldt’. Thomas Jefferson called Humbold ‘one of the greatest ornaments of the age’. The great poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge put Humboldt’s concept of nature in their poems. Henry David Thoreau, the most loved and respected of America’s nature writers found an answer to his dilemma of how to be a poet and naturalist in one. Simon Bolivar, who liberated South America from Spanish colonial rule, called Humboldt the ‘discoverer of the New World’. Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, wrote that spending a few days in Humboldt company was like ‘having lived several years.’

Below is a portrait of Simon Bolivar, liberator of South America:

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Andrea Wulf, the renowned Humboldt biographer, wrote: ‘ We are shaped by the past. Nicolaus Copernicus showed us our place in the universe, Isaac Newton explained the laws of nature, Thomas Jefferson gave us concept of liberty and democracy, and Charles Darwin proved that all species descend from common ancestors. These ideas define our relationship to the world. Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself.’

Here, I have to express my profound admiration and respect for Andrea Wulf and her extraordinary, unique approach to writing a biography of a giant of science, Alexander von Humboldt. Where most biographers would read all the papers, notes, letters and books relevant and stored in the libraries of the big cities, Andrea has done all that, but then she had religiously followed in the dangerous footsteps of the explorer. She climbed the living volcanos, sailed across the oceans, hiked in Yosemite, traveled in the rainforest in Venezuela, listening to the strange bellowing cry of howler monkeys. On Chimborazo, the mountain that had been so important to Humboldt vision of nature, she crawled on the top of a few centimeters wide ridge, with steep precipices on both sides, and after getting to the top, she suffered  the same lack of oxygen, that Humboldt did, and found the air so thin that her legs felt leaden and seemingly detached from her body. Her quest was to restore Humboldt to his ‘rightful place in the pantheon of nature and science’. I don’t know of any other biographer who would willingly risk her/his life in the process of doing so, and I can only bow in admiration. She is also an acclaimed writer of several books and her sophisticated and elegant writing adds greatly to the pleasure of following the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.

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Andrea Wulf’s heroic efforts to bring back to us the lost hero of sciences made me wish to spread the word about this remarkable man too. My blog is read in 46 countries worldwide, from Canada to New Zealand, from South Africa to Argentina, across Russia, China, Hong Kong, the United States, India to Malaysia, Philipines, Japan, and Nepal and several European countries, including Great Britain, also the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Taiwan and  perhaps it would be useful, was my thought,  if I were to write about this great man, based on Andrea’s fascinating biography ‘The Invention of Nature’. I feel that I can write about the geographical extent of my log because I am not selling anything and don’t have adverts benefiting me in any way. I should add here, that I don’t think that so many people read my blog because my writing is so interesting, but because I write ABOUT interesting people, events or plants and animals. Otherwise, I would be labouring under a delusion, so well described by Oscar Wilde, who quipped: ‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying’.

Here is a map of the world, provided by WordPress, showing in purple all the countries where some people read my blog:

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The facts about the beginning of Alexander von Humboldt’s life are as interesting as they are complex. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family in 1769, at Tegel, a country estate ten miles from Berlin.  Alexander was nine when his much-adored father died suddenly. From then on, Alexander and his older brother, Wilhelm were left in the care of the excellent tutors, as their mother never showed the boys any affection. Fortunately, she provided them with the best education by the teachers who would installed in them a love of truth, liberty and knowledge. From a very young age, Alexander would take every opportunity to explore the countryside around the estate, when not confined in the classroom, collecting plants and rocks. He found nature calming and soothing, after hours spent poring over Latin, maths and languages. The time he was born into was called the Enlightenment. Those were times of global changes, revolutions, expansions, industrial developments. The publishing, opening of the new universities and libraries raised the level of literacy.  The great thinkers and inventers were providing ways of harnessing nature, among them Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Isaac Newton. The Humboldt brothers, now grown up, joined Berlin’s intellectual circles. They both studied at various universities in preparation for becoming the civil servants as their mother insisted, but Alexander dreamed of distant travels, of filling the gaps on the world maps and collecting exotic plants. A chance meeting with a member of Captain Cook’s the Beagle crew resulted in a few months tour abroad, and after the wanderlust won,  Alexander would never become a civil servant, much to his mother’s displeasure.

Below is Humboldt in later life in his library:

HumboldtLibrary

In the late eighteen century, scientific dogmas about nature began to change. Humboldt’s passionate goal at that time was to undo what he called the ‘Gordian knot of the process of life.’ It was during his visit to his brother, who now married, has settled 150 miles from Berlin in a small place, Jena, that was fifteen miles away from Weimar, the state capital, and the home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that Humboldt met Germany’s greatest poet. A young man, Alexander, ignited in Goethe a spark that was missing in then middle-aged, Goethe’s life. They discussed their ideas about nature and walked and dined together, and conducted experiments. One of their contemporaries said, that in Weimar ‘the brightest minds came together like the sunrays in a magnifying glass.’

The picture below shows a discussion between Schiller, Goethe and the two Humboldt brothers in Weimar:

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Knowing Goethe only for his literary achievements, I could now understand his answer, when asked ‘why are we here?’ – ‘I am here to wonder’. I wrote about this in my post ‘ I am here to wonder’ as urbanisation and the technology (read computer games) have disconnected many people from nature. Reading Andrea’s biography enlightened me about Goethe’s work as a scientist who was fascinated by the formation of the earth and botany. He also worked on comparative anatomy and optics. In young Alexander, he found a stimulating partner who would make him ‘dizzy with ideas’. His writing of Faust coincided with Humbledt’s visits and it reflected his relentless striving for knowledge. Knowing Goethe affected Humboldt profoundly and showed him a new way of looking at nature. I was delighted to learn that Goethe was also a passionate, professional gardener. At that time Humboldt’s mother died and finally, at twenty-seven, he was ready and financially able to begin his travels, and the search of his destiny.

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Having bought all the latest instruments he would need to measure, map and see things in the distance, Humboldt embarked on the frigate ‘Pizarro’ that was waiting for him in Spain.  As they sailed towards the tropics his excitement increasingly grew. He tested his instruments, measured the hight of the sun, and examined the fish, jellyfish, seaweed and birds. When one night the sea seemed to be on fire with phosphorescence, he wrote in his diary that it was like ‘edible liquid full of organic particles.’

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They stopped briefly in Tenerife, and he rushed ashore to climb the first mountain outside Europe, the volcano Pico del Teide. After climbing 12,000 feet to its peak, his face was frozen but his feet burning from the hot volcanic ground. The journey continued and when he saw the Southern Cross he wrote that he achieved the dreams of his ‘earliest youth’. Forty-one days after leaving Spain, he saw the first sight of the New World, Venezuela. South America at that time was in Spanish hands and governed with absolute rule. Humboldt knew that despite having a passport issued by the king of Spain, he could have serious problems unless he managed to inspire an interest in those who were in charge of the colonies. For a moment he enjoyed the tropical scenery, everything new and spectacular. It was to be the beginning of a new life, and the five years spent there would change him from ‘ a curious and talented young man into the most extraordinary scientist of his age’.

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Over the next few months, Humboldt his assistant and a manservant moved along the towards the tropical jungle to find if two major rivers, Orinoko and Amazon were connected, as he suspected. It was here his observations lead him to write: ‘ When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with impudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during the part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead  of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtration, they furrow during heavy showers the side of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and form those sudden inundation, that devastate the country.’

As I have described Andrea’s efforts to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps as he explored the world, I will only add the interesting fact – one hundred years after Humboldt’s death, in 1869, Alexander Humboldt centennial was celebrated across the world. There were parties, celebrations, and monuments unveiling from one end of the globe to another. Andrea’s quest to restore the memory of this greatest of scientists will no doubt be successful.

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2 thoughts on “The Invention of Nature & the Lost Hero of Science – Alexander Von Humboldt

  1. Wonderful post, truly fascinating information!

    Like

  2. Yes, I was quite amazed too….

    Liked by 1 person

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