Alexander von Humboldt: The man who made nature modern
The statue of German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in front of the main building of the Alexander von Humbolt University in central Berlin on April 27, 2011. (Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)By Andrea Wulf, LA Times
His contemporaries considered Alexander von Humboldt the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, and Thomas Jefferson called him “one of the greatest ornaments of the age.” There are more plants, animals, minerals and places named after Humboldt than any other person. In California alone, a county, a bay, a college and a state park all bear his name. He is a founding father of environmentalism, a visionary who predicted man-made climate change as early as 1800.
Yet Humboldt is almost forgotten in the English-speaking world. We see his name on maps, on the information cards at the zoo or in the newspaper — the Humboldt Current, the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt State, the Humboldt mountain range — but most Americans know little about the man.
Born in 1769 into an aristocratic Prussian family in Berlin, Humboldt discarded a life of privilege and spent his substantial inheritance on a dangerous five-year exploration of Latin America.
He ventured deep into the mysterious rain forests in Venezuela and paddled along crocodile-infested tropical rivers. He walked thousands of miles through the Andes, from Bogota, Colombia, to Lima, Peru — climbing volcanos along the way, including Chimborazo, then believed to be the highest mountain in the world.
He was fascinated by scientific instruments and empirical data, but equally driven by a sense of wonder. At almost 20,000 feet and nauseated by altitude sickness, Humboldt measured the chemical components of the air and also described nature's majestic beauty. Where other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that “nature must be experienced through feeling.”
When he returned to Europe, his trunks were filled with dozens of notebooks, hundreds of sketches and tens of thousands of astronomical, geological and meteorological observations, and some 60,000 plant specimens. Over the next 50 years, Humboldt published so many books that even he lost track.