by Andrea Wulf
The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was a nineteenth-century rockstar. A scientific celebrity. One of the most famous men in the world. He seems to have been held in high esteem by pretty much everyone who was anyone (with the notable exception of Napoléon Bonaparte, who did not conceal his dislike for Humboldt when the two men met).
A phenomenal polymath, Humboldt's fame grew with the publication of the magnificent series of books he wrote following his extensive travels in the Americas. As a university student, Charles Darwin was an unabashed fan of Humboldt's writing. Indeed, it could be argued that Darwin might never have got the itch to set sail on a voyage of scientific discovery himself, had he not been such a Humboldt fanboy. This from Darwin's autobiography, written toward the end of his life:
During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt's ‘Personal Narrative’. This work, and Sir J. Herschel's ‘Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy’, stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two. I copied out from Humboldt long passages about Teneriffe, and read them aloud […] to (I think) Henslow, Ramsay, and Dawes, for on a previous occasion I had talked about the glories of Teneriffe, and some of the party declared they would endeavour to go there; but I think that they were only half in earnest. I was, however, quite in earnest, and got an introduction to a merchant in London to enquire about ships; but the scheme was, of course, knocked on the head by the voyage of the ‘Beagle’.
Humboldt was interested in all branches of science, recognising the importance of taking accurate measurements. He studied ocean currents, volcanoes, glaciers, vegetation zones, the earth's magnetic field, climate, and a host of other subjects, stressing the importance of taking what might nowadays be referred to as a ‘holistic’ or ‘ecological’ view of the natural world. As Wulf explains (p.88):
‘Nature is a living whole,’ he later said, not a ‘dead aggregate’. One single life had been poured over stones, plants, animals and humankind. It was this ‘universal profusion with which life is everywhere distributed’ that most impressed Humboldt. Even the atmosphere carried the kernels of future life—pollen, insect eggs and seeds. Life was everywhere and those ‘organic powers are incessantly at work’, he wrote. Humboldt was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them. Individual phenomena were only important ‘in their relation to the whole’, he explained.
It was this kind of thinking that led Humboldt to invent isotherms: lines connecting locations of equal temperatures on a map. While others might note the temperatures of individual locations, Humboldt sought a joined-up, bigger picture. He was also one of the first people to notice mankind's often detrimental affects on the natural world: an ecologist before the word was invented.
Andrea Wulf's entertaining, Costa-Award-winning biography provides a useful introduction to Humboldt: a man whose fame has much declined since his day—although I would question his being described as a ‘lost hero of science’ in the book's subtitle. The book is particularly good describing Humboldt's influence on other important historical figures such as Goethe, Darwin, Simón Bolívar, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.
A thoroughly enjoyable read.