On 14 September 1869, 25,000 people marched through New York to celebrate the centennial of the birth of German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. The next day, the New York Times devoted its entire front page to the festivities. Humboldt was described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon. Though almost forgotten today – at least in the English-speaking world – his name still lingers everywhere from the Humboldt Current running along the west coast of South America to the Humboldt penguin. In North America alone there are four counties, thirteen towns, a river, bays, lakes, and mountains named after him. An intrepid explorer and visionary scientist, Humboldt’s restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether climbing the highest volcanoes in the world, risking his life in the Amazonian rainforest or racing through anthrax-infested Siberia.
What made Humboldt so famous was that he had come up with the revolutionary idea that the natural world was a web of life – a unified whole where everything was correlated. He predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800. He wove together hard scientific data with art, history, poetry and politics. Humboldt saw nature as a global force and became the most interdisciplinary of all scientists.
He was a man of contradictions who inspired thinkers and revolutionaries alike. Thomas Jefferson was his friend, as was Simón Bolívar who called him the ‘discoverer of the New World’. Charles Darwin said that Humboldt was the reason why he boarded the Beagle, while Sierra Club founder and father of the National Parks, John Muir aspired ‘to be a Humboldt’. Henry David Thoreau, found in Humboldt’s books an answer to his dilemma on how to be a poet and a naturalist – Walden would have been a very different book without Humboldt.
In this beautifully illustrated talk Andrea Wulf vividly brings this last polymath back to life, taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – and his ideas as they go on to revolutionize science, conservation and preservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. In THE INVENTION OF NATURE, she reintroduces us to a lost hero of science and the forgotten father of environmentalism, showing us why understanding his vision of the world has become more necessary today than ever before. Humboldt was, after all, as one contemporary said, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’.
For a short 5-min video about the book, please see link below: