I always knew Humboldt was an important nature guy but not until I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf did I get a full picture of just how very important he was. Born in 1769 to a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family, he began life with privilege coming out his ears. He and his older brother, Wilhelm, were tutored at home by the best and they were tutored together. This gave Humboldt a bit of an inferiority complex since he was expected to do the same work as Wilhelm, two years older. But it all paid off because when he graduated university he was made a mine inspector at the young age of twenty-two. This position sent him traveling thousands of miles to evaluate soils, shafts and ores. He started dreaming of faraway places but he was not allowed to go. He was expected to climb the ranks of Prussian administration, not travel the world.
But when his mother died in 1796 (his father had died when he was only 9), he resigned his position and moved to Paris where he was steeped in a flurry of scientific thought and discovery. In 1799 he received a passport to the Spanish colonies of South America and so began his incredible scientific career. Here are just a few of his accomplishments:
- He was the first to write about human-induced climate change
- He was the first to insist that nature was a global web of life and that everything was connected.
- He was the first to conceive of ecosystems
- He invented isotherms which we still use today
- He discovered the magnetic equator.
- He was the first to theorize about plate tectonics.
- He was the first to understand climate as a system.
Humboldt’s books were published in a dozen languages and were so popular people would bribe booksellers so they could get a copy first. Part of what made him so appealing was that he believed in the importance of scientific measurement and observation while at the same time insisting that our response to the natural world should be based on senses and emotions. He believed we could only truly understand nature through imagination.
Humboldt inspired others to greatness too. Darwin carried a small library of books by Humboldt with him on the Beagle, was inspired by his ideas and tried to emulate his writing style. Thoreau was a big fan too. His work also inspired George Perkins Marsh who eventually helped establish the Smithsonian Institution and wrote extensively about human effects on the environment. Ernest Haeckel came to a life of science because of Humboldt, defying his family. Haeckel conceived the idea and study of ecology, studied radiolarians and discovered many unknown varieties. His detailed drawings of the microscopic creatures became influential in the art world and influenced the Art Nouveau movement. John Muir was a reader of Humboldt too and gained much insight from him for his own natural wanderings and work to preserve nature.
Did you know there are more places in the world named after Humboldt than any other person? It is no surprise really given all that he did.
Wulf’s book is a well-written, nicely paced journey through the life of one of the most interesting scientists the world has ever seen. She manages to provide plenty of fascinating details without getting bogged down in minutiae or overwhelming with facts and dates. If you are in the mood for a good biography that is not about a president or a writer, this one just might be for you.