A scientific expedition had long been Alexander von Humboldt’s dream, so when he stepped onto the shores of Latin America in 1799 he was beyond excited, and soon began exploring, measuring, comparing, questioning, and chronicling everything: the distribution of indigenous plants, barometric pressure at different altitudes, the relative blueness of the sky, the cultures and customs of local people, rates of river evaporation, the environmental effects of farming, examples of native language, the charge in electric eels, and–maybe most significantly–his thoughts and feelings about it all, because Humboldt believed people learned by their connection to nature so he used comparison and poetic analogies to advance his discoveries and expand his understanding. Humboldt has to be one of the most interesting people I’d almost never heard of. (I checked the index of one of my all time favorite books about the era, Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, and Humboldt does receive a few scant mentions there.)
Humboldt’s many visionary achievements have had a lasting impact. He began talking about man-made climate change in 1800, he invented isotherms–lines of temperature and pressure–that we still see on today’s weather maps, he initiated the idea of vegetation and climate zones, he denounced slavery and colonialism when both still had a strong hold, he inspired many great thinkers and leaders of his day and beyond, and he revolutionized how we think about nature by describing it as an interconnected web in which what happens to one part affects everything else.
Though colonial powers weren’t crazy about some of his revolutionary political ideas, Humboldt had an energetic charisma that drew people to him and he was widely celebrated in his life. His death was mourned around the globe, and huge world-wide celebrations were held on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. So why isn’t he better known today? One reason Wulf gives is that unlike Newton or Columbus, Humboldt isn’t recognized for a one great discovery–his methods were holistic, combining the hard data of science with art, poetry, history and politics, and his biggest successes involved making science both popular and accessible through his ingeniously imagined graphics and widely read books. The other reason Humboldt fell off radar in the English speaking world is the anti-German sentiment that developed during
Andrea Wulf’s enthusiasm about her subject is contagious, so this book she’s written about Humboldt and his legacy is fascinating, even gripping, and highly readable. Beautiful illustrations from some of Humboldt’s own books are included. Because Humboldt spent time in many places and knew well or influenced a lot of notable people, Wulf has included in-depth, idea-rich portraits of a wide variety of people, including members of the Prussian royal family, Goethe, Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, John Muir, Ernst Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, and Henry David Thoreau. I especially enjoyed reading about Humboldt’s enthusiastic explorations of the world around him, Napoleonic era Paris, the revolutionary history of South America, and Humboldt’s wild ride across Russia.
Is Humboldt better remembered in non-English speaking parts of the world? I’d love to have a comment from anyone who knows.
I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. If the finished version has color plates instead of black and white it will be even more spectacular.