In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, biographer Andrea Wulf provides an intimate view of a man who spent a lifetime sharing what he learned with the scientific community and the general public.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), born in Berlin, was a sickly child who grew up to be an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. A naturalist, geographer, and explorer, he believed that nature was a web of life. Today we refer to this principle of interconnectedness as ecology. Humboldt was, as Wulf documents, “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.”
Humboldt was among the first to cite scientific evidence that humans could change the climate. Wulf writes that, to Humboldt, “The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable,’… and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally.’ ”
While exploring the Americas from 1799 to 1804, Humboldt examined and recorded his observations. His writings included a description of what is now known as the Humboldt Current, which flows north along the west coast of South America.
During his nearly 70-year career, Humboldt’s fame stretched throughout the world, in part because he believed that scientists should write in a style that was easy for non-scientists to read and enjoy. He was a prodigious writer whose works were widely translated.
Before returning to Europe from his explorations of South America, he sailed north to the United States where he met with Thomas Jefferson. On his return, his lectures at the Academie des Sciences in Paris drew standing-room-only audiences.
During Charles Darwin’s nearly five-year voyage on the Beagle, Humboldt’s Personal Narrative and Views of Nature were his constant companions. “Throughout the Beagle’s voyage, Darwin was engaged in an inner dialogue with Humboldt,” Wulf notes. Darwin called Humboldt the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”
Humboldt was the first naturalist to document many of the plants and animals of the Americas, but what made him special was the way that he connected the phenomena and forces of nature. Wulf’s engaging, meticulously researched biography should inspire a renewed interest in Humboldt, a scientific pioneer.