Have you heard of Alexander Von Humboldt? I hadn’t until I read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander Von Homboldt, The Lost Hero of Science. Long subtitle aside, the biography opened my eyes to this scientist who really was born before his time.
How did I never hear of him despite all the places, plants and animals named after him – the Humboldt Glacier, Humboldt penguin, Humboldt squid, Humboldt Current…?
Or the fact that he influenced notable scientists and thinkers of the day including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir…?
Or that his many travels – including climbing Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador – experiments, learning, studying and immense memory brought so much information about the environment to us.
Or his view of nature, combining poetry and emotion with science, focused on the interconnectedness of the world.
His vision was called Naturgemalde, a ‘painting of nature’, which illustrates nature as being interconnected. When Humboldt learnt a new fact – and he discovered many during his lifetime – he connected it with other aspects of the natural world.
”Individual phenomena were only important ‘in their relation to the whole” for Humboldt.
Temperature, climate, humidity, atmosphere, animals, plants… instead of focusing on one topic, Humboldt would look at them all. Instead of studying one mountain and that’s it, Humboldt would link any information gained to other mountains across the world. His interdisciplinary scientific logic partnered with an artistic, poetical view of nature, resulting in engravings and artwork to accompany scientific findings.
Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian family, he lived at a fascinating time in history, of revolutions, war and turmoil. He met most of the most famous people of the time, such as Simon Bolivar and American presidents, and travelled extensively to Russia, South America, Europe and the US. He also managed to fit in writing several influential books.
Despite all this, what I found most impressive about this German scientist was his insight into the ecosystem and how humans were affecting it.
Wulf writes: ‘Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect…He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen’.
‘The effects of the human species’intervention were already ‘incalculable’ and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally”.
As Wulf says later on, ‘Humboldt’s views sound alarmingly prophetic’.
A man ahead of his time indeed.
The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf