Read The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf Online


The acclaimed author of Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still gracesThe acclaimed author of Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infected Siberia or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Among Humboldt’s most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt’s influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau’s Walden. With this brilliantly researched and compellingly written book, Andrea Wulf shows the myriad fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science.NATIONAL BEST SELLERShortlist -- Costa Biography AwardFinalist -- Carnegie Medal for Excellence in NonfictionFinalist -- Kirkus Reviews Prize for NonfictionA Publishers Weekly Best Book of the YearNew York Times 10 Best Books (2015)...

Title : The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
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ISBN : 9780385350662
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 473 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World Reviews

  • Hadrian
    2019-06-18 11:49

    This is a charming book, which has one of the highest achievements of any biographer - it has introduced the reader to an unknown subject and truly convinced them, "This person and their life are interesting. Let me show you why."Alexander von Humboldt had a full life. He was one of the founders of modern biology and ecology, and had a direct effect on scientists and political leaders ranging from John Muir and Charles Darwin to Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar. His expeditions led him through Central and South America and Siberia. (A trip to India was forbidden by the British for fears that he would write something critical about their colonial rule.) Though the first trip was 'discovering' what the natives knew already (of course the Orinoco drains into the Amazon), his depiction of natural life, his description of life as a complex interrelated system, and his superhuman efforts in communicating his discoveries made his work endure - so much so that it's taken for granted, and the man himself has faded out of the historical record except for Latin America and Germany itself.A compelling book, with affectionate regard for its subject. If only it was longer! There is only too much here to discuss.

  • William1
    2019-06-13 11:27

    3.5 stars. For me, this book was — likeWhy Nations Fail,Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’sThe Whisperers— a keystone narrative that linked up many formerly disparate threads of my personal reading. Such books are rare pleasures. I had always known that Alexander von Humboldt’s story was a link missing from my general knowledge. The praises of Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould alone told me as much. But I didn't know this was generally due to anti-German sentiment so powerful in the U.S. and Europe after World War II.During his Latin American explorations (1799-1804), Humboldt was front page news in the West. He and his team climbed volcanoes, pressed plants, murdered fascinating new animal species, reset the coordinates, often grossly incorrect, for scores of cartographic features (rivers, mountains, etc.), slept on the shores of the Orinoco River, dodged leopards, crocodiles and other predators, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes. This was a time when his name was a byword for adventure on the lips of every schoolboy, even in the U.S.Afterward Humboldt returned to Europe, settling in Paris, where he wrote up his findings. What resulted was a series of paradigm-smashing publications for both scientists and general readers. He is the first true naturalist as we understand that term today. It helped that Humboldt was a writer of startling clarity and concision. Until then, it seems, writing for the masses was not considered a career-expanding opportunity by men of science. Author Andrea Wulf does not say why, but I think it probably had something to do with the presumed loss of reputation for so craven an act of moneymaking. Humboldt changed all that. Sacks and Gould and countless other writers would become beneficiaries of his breakthrough.But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life. He had as personal acquaintances Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who had him arrested briefly as a German spy. They all read him. His works constituted an epiphany for Charles Darwin, who took Humboldt’sPersonal Narrative on board H.M.S. Beagle with him and who later met his hero. Henry David Thoreau could not have writtenWalden without Humboldt's example. The English Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron all read and were influenced by him; as was Edgar Allan Poe, who dedicated his Eureka: A Prose Poem to him.The major figures succeeding Humboldt and carrying his torch, if you will, include George Perkins Marsh, whoseMan and Nature coalesced Humboldt’s environmental warnings, previously scattered throughout many volumes, into a clarion call for the conservation of the natural world; Ernst Haeckel, the prolific marine biologist, who virtually broadcast the Humboldtian sensibility to countless millions through his own popular books and articles; and John Muir, the almost comically ecstatic naturalist largely responsible for creating the U.S. federal parks system.P.S. Humboldt was almost certainly homosexual. He usually had some slender young man with him in the guise of assistant. He avoided women like the plague, except those who could talk science, and he was said, if we are to believe Wulf (I do), to have disappointed entire cities of women who thought he'd make a fine match. His life was, in part, another bullet to the gizzard of that ridiculous fiction, the celibate bachelor.

  • David
    2019-06-16 16:30

    This is a wonderful biography of a man about whom I knew very little. Today, in the United States, his name is practically unknown, despite being a world-wide celebrity in his day. Humboldt was a great explorer and scientist. He saw nature as a unified whole, an "organism in which parts only worked in relation to each other." His approach was holistic, and was entirely against the reductionist approach to science. Perhaps because of the influence of Goethe, Humboldt strongly advocated merging of art and science. In 1806, his writings were about evolutionary ideas, long before Darwin. In fact, Darwin took Humboldt's seven-volume book Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent along with him during his voyage aboard the Beagle. In his book Views of Nature, Humboldt wrote about how weather and geography influence the moods of people--and this was a revelation. He inspired generations of scientists, writers and poets, including Thoreau, Emerson, Darwin, and Jules Verne. Humboldt was also a strident abolitionist: He equated colonialism with slavery and "European barbarism." He befriended and greatly influenced Simón Bolívar's efforts to free South America from the tyranny of its colonial status. He was the world's foremost expert on Latin America.When Humboldt was young, he yearned to participate in adventures and exploration. At the age of 27, he went off on an exploration of South America, an adventure that lasted five years. He survived terrible conditions, jungle heat, mountain cold, high-altitude sickness, and the torment of mosquitos. He did not take a large retinue, but only traveled with one scientist friend and a couple of guides. Along the way he took copious notes, a multitude of measurements with his scientific instruments, and lots of specimens of flora and fauna. He sent them back to Europe at regular intervals, in case he never made it back home alive.Humboldt invented the concept of isotherms, that enabled a global understanding of climate. Back in Europe, he gave many free lectures in Berlin, encouraging people of all classes to attend. Half of the attendees were women. His lectures were unique, connecting "seemingly disparate disciplines and facts." He talked about the complex web of nature with "extraordinary clarity." He organized a remarkable conference of 500 scientists from all across Europe. When Humboldt was 59 years old, he went on an expedition to Siberia. After analyzing the geology of certain areas in the Ural mountains, he predicted that he would find diamonds, and everyone thought he was crazy. But, he did find them!He was at heart an environmentalist. He wrote a lot about the destruction of forests and long-term changes to the environment. He described three ways in which humans change the climate; deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and through steam and gas in industrial centers. He proposed a global network of stations to measure the Earth's magnetic field, and when it came about, he collected two million measurements over a three-year period.Humboldt was a great explorer. He strongly encouraged explorers and artists to travel. He decried people who tried to do arm-chair science. He aided less fortunate scientists and explorers, giving them funds even though his own financial position was precarious. One American travel writer wrote that he "came to Berlin not to see museums and galleries, but 'for the sake of seeing and speaking with the world's greatest living man.'"In this book, Andrea Wulf does much more that merely narrate the life of Humboldt. She also goes to great lengths to give the biographies of some other amazing people who were strongly influenced by Humboldt. In this way, we get a picture of how important Humboldt was, and still is. Humboldt was one of the first environmentalists and wrote so much about ecology. The book is well-written, well-organized, and fun to read. The descriptions of Humboldt's travels are gripping, as she writes about the dangerous climbs, diseases, and predators all around. I highly recommend it to everyone interested in nature, science, and exploration.

  • Jan-Maat
    2019-05-28 10:41

    Overall a nice book. If I was giving star ratings then at times this book for me soared into five stars, at others it dredged through three star territory but because of the charm and vivacity and surprisingly upbeat approach to the book's subject I would not begrudge the book four stars and would generally encourage others to read it.However I feel that Wulf's mind was pregnant with two books and in this one, both are conjoined and stillborn. There is the oddly optimistic and breezy book about Humboldt, then the serious if not dismal book about the development of ecology and ecological thinking branching off into conservation and environmental destruction. The conjuncture of the two pulled the book into three star territory as structurally it meant that the Humboldt story fizzled out damply while the mini chapter length studies of how Thoreau radically rewrote Walden under the influence of his writing followed by chapters each on the influence of Humboldt upon George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir don't rise to the same level.So Andrea Wulf positions Alexander von Humboldt as a pivotal figure who has been largely forgotten despite or because of having been hugely influential, she argues his insights are so main stream that they no longer stand out as exceptional and that the anti-German trend starting from WWI has tended to cause a conscious effort to forget him.Her story I found oddly upbeat because his life was a story of frustration - his huge experience was his time in South America in the early years of the nineteenth century, however after this he struggled to get permission from the British east India company to travel in India (view spoiler)[ possibly the Honourable company feared the release of commercial sensitive information (view spoiler)[ or the collecting of commercially sensitive seeds and their distribution to more or less mad scientists round the world (hide spoiler)] or indeed an expose of their rule in India (hide spoiler)] and apart from a trip through Russia as far as the Altai was not again to have the intense excitements of an explorer but was limited to writing about his experiences while his personal friends died. Loneliness and disappointments are however not the dominant flavours in this lively assertion of Humboldt's importance linking the subjective response to nature to the Romantics, inspiring Lyell and Darwin with his vision of Nature, devising Isotherms (Humboldt had a powerful visual sense(view spoiler)[ devises isotherms to be able to see the pattern of world temperature variation that he had been studying (p.177 (hide spoiler)]), an early popular science writer through his publications Humboldt came to influence the other figures mentioned above and so shaped early ecological thinking. Wulf stresses Humboldt's vision of the devastation caused on the environment by Capitalism changes to the climate caused by the clearing of forests and the introduction of cash crop monocultures (view spoiler)[ he was particularly critically of Indigo and sugar (hide spoiler)] and the human damage they caused - slavery, colonialism, later dictatorship, transplantation of human populations even after the end of the slave trade, his vision Wulf shows in a sense did not go far enough because Jefferson's sturdy republic of yeoman farmers(view spoiler)[ Humboldt had met Jefferson and had been impressed by his Republic (hide spoiler)] itself depended upon cash crop countries not only for colonial goods but also to provide a market place for their own export crops - the ecology of human interdependences was as densely interwoven as that of the plant kingdom. Implicitly Wulf's presentations goes against her argument, Humboldt was a bestseller, suffering from pirated editions while publishers claimed there were fights to obtain early copies of his latest publications, however his critique did not challenge and has not led to a change to an exploitative if not suicidal extractive and agricultural world economic system with concomitant human damage. The curious absence from this book is Potosi which was the exemplar of his vision. Reading was particularly resonant with news from Venezuela (view spoiler)[ petrodemocracy suffering as collateral damage in Saudi Arabia's price war against Iran, US frackers and insufficiently submissive Gulf states(hide spoiler)] and mudslides in Sierra Leone in the background extractive economies and destroyed environments remain ever green I suppose. science-like bitAt the same time Humboldt was a prophet of Nature as sublime and how it is only through emotional responses to the flight of a condor that we can ,even in science, fully hope to understand it. In this he was encouraged by his friendship with Goethe, who in turn Wulf says wrote him into his portrayal of the eponymous hero of Faust.Looking at Humboldt's influence upon Lyell, Darwin and so on, I felt first how even evolutionary thinking was not a sudden intellectual breakthrough - half the thinking world appeared to be pregnant with the concept well before Darwin, it just took time to articulate it explicitly, then it struck me that science does not progress one funereal at a time but rather is like desert flowers. The seeds fall but have to wait dormant until rains fall again before they can shoot forth into new life. The influence here Wulf traces back to Goethe's search for an urform from which more complex forms and manifestation of life develop, Darwin we can see was double Humboldted, reading him directly and indirectly via Lyell. Possibly the evolutionary potential of Humboldt's vision had a great and theory making impact upon Darwin because of the influence of the Second Great Awakening upon Anglo-Saxon intellectual life, if as that movement insisted , it was God what had done it all and exactly as it said in the Bible (and the King James version at that) , evolution and interdependence between life form and environment become revolutionary ideas. All through all one sensed how deeply the author engaged and enjoyed her subject, a passion that she effectively transfers to and shares with the reader.At the same time I would not describe this as a scientific biography - we don't read a discussion of his scientific influences beyond Goethe nor an evaluation of his collection technique or of the instruments he used. Above all we see how he strived, almost intuitively, to understand each phenomenon and to look and to understand the connections that link all life together in a web of interdependencies. This had implications for his understanding of human societies, economics and politics but also geology so he predicted based on finds of gold and platinum in Russia that diamonds were present in those strata, and shortly after some were discovered.The relationship between life and environment led Humboldt to become deeply aware of similarities, so he noticed that plants on Latin American mountains were like those he had seen on the Alps, so he could describe the earth in terms of zones of vegetation or indeed temperature zones, drawing attention to the impact on regional climates caused by mountains or the sea. His graphical representations of this are to us familiar but radical in his day.PoliticsYears ago reading the The General in his Labyrinth which was an attempt to present Bolivar as a ancestral figure for the political left in Latin America, that struck me as an interesting but Quixotic (view spoiler)[ which is a way maybe of saying, the best (hide spoiler)] exercise. An interesting effect of Wulf's book is that effort becomes in retrospect both natural, necessary and overdue.Bolivar was heavily influenced by Humboldt - his championing of the majesty and glories of the natural world came as a counterpoint to those scientists who like Buffon who in the eighteenth century had argued that nature was degenerate and inferior in the new world, a position which implicitly justified its subordinate colonial position. Humboldt also directly addressed himself to colonialism praising the capabilities and cultures of indigenous peoples pointing out the destruction caused and in progress due to the unsympathetic imposition of European agricultural practices. The political implication of Humboldt's nature writing was that Latin America was inherently great, but to realise that greatness it needed to liberate itself from European controls and come to terms with its self, both parts of this programme one might observe have proved elusive. The flip side of this was that Humboldt became a chamberlain of Prussian kings and was dependent on them for his income - as he had burned his way through his inheritance on his South American expedition - in part on porterage for his barometers(view spoiler)[ only one survived the journey (hide spoiler)] and other equipment, and so he was a hanger on of kings, encouraging them to construct observatories even as he approved of Republics and hoped for the breaking up of colonial empires.I came to read this book in the following wayI had noticed this book when it came out in hardback as something I felt I would like to read, but I decided to trust in the tides of fate which in time bring curious books to me. And it came to pass that I was walking up hill away from a hospital appointment and I came across a bookshop that I had never seen before. Naturally overcome by the rational spirit of scientific enquiry I stepped inside. It was a handsome bookshop and after a while flittering about its shelves I settled on buying this book. I praised the bookshop to the cashier and asked how long the bookshop had been here - imagining quickly the romantic story of some city types who had lost their jobs in 2008 and decided to do penance for their financial sins by opening a bookshop and so working for the moral betterment of humanity - the cashier replied dryly seventy years. Deeply wounded in my ability to sense a bookshop at 200 paces since at one time I had worked just round the corner I stumbled into the next bookshop and bought something else.

  • Michael
    2019-06-10 13:40

    This biography of Alexander von Humboldt was a revelation and a fun ride for me. This German scientist is credited with developing core concepts of ecology and documenting impacts of human development on the environment in early part of the 19th century. Wulf, who studied history of design and has written previously on the history of horticulture, aims with this accessible and well-illustrated account to rectify the near absence of recognition of Humboldt’s accomplishments in U.S. science education. Indeed, he didn’t come up in my studies of biology, and I only became aware of him through a recent read of Holme’s popular history of 18th and early 19th century science, “The Age of Wonder.” Through Wulf’s book I came to learn how he justifiably become the most well-known and respected scientist of his age and inspired so many other scientific developments and cultural movements more readily recognized today. The book delves into Humboldt’s childhood in Prussia at the end of the 18th century. Though bookish and eager to study the natural sciences, he was pushed by his father toward more practical education and career in as a mining engineer while his older brother, Wilhelm, was supported in taking a more academic track. At least the work he subsequently engaged in for a mining company allowed him to dig into the fields of geology, chemistry, and metallurgy and fulfilled some of his interests in travel and exploration. Great minds attracted him like a magnet, and through a visit to his brother in Jena he soon immersed himself in the great ferment of culture and science there that led to the birth of German Romanticism. He formed a seminal friendship with Goethe, who lived nearby, and together they worked on experiments in ‘animal electricity’, theories of botany and geology, and digested the powerful ideas of Kant. The latter’s “Critique of Pure Reason” pointed a way for them for the subjective self to create knowledge and not just to passively mirror and reflect on external reality through the senses. The creative force of the mind and emotions became for them a key to knowledge and making a valid model of reality knowledge. This form of systems thinking was a foundation for his revelations on nature as an interconnected whole and man’s integral part within it.After his father died, he inherited enough money to fund his keen desire to explore great unknowns in the world. The teeming life of equatorial jungles especially hungered him. However, a proper expedition required more money than he had and the colonial empires were proprietary about their new possessions. After getting shut out of a chance at French territories he eventually wangled permissions and financial support for an expedition to Venezuela. In his five years away, he supplemented his studies of botany and zoology in the rainforest with systematic approaches to climate and biogeography through study of progression from the lowlands to high altitudes of volcanic peaks. He consolidated his theories with further explorations in the Andes, Central America, and Cuba. Through ethnographic observations he came to appreciate the integrity and wisdom of indigenous peoples and become disturbed with the common vision of them as savages suitable for slavery and exploitation in colonial enterprise. He saw clearly the connection of colonialism, with its deforestation, focus on cash crops, and destructive mining practices, to degradation of the environment and prospects for extinction of species and native cultures. On his way back to Europe, he found a good ear for his discoveries in a stop in America with President Jefferson, who also favored progressive agrarian approaches and responsible stewardship for vast new territories acquired from France and just explored by Lewis and Clark.Humboldt’s great skills in public speaking and marshalling his ideas into accessible writing made him an instant worldwide star in both intellectual circles and the populace at large. His non-stop talking and flitting from soiree to soiree in Paris inspired many significant thinkers and scientists who came into his path (others found him to be a egocentric bore). His work over decades in writing many volumes based on his field work was subsidized by King Friedrich Wilhelm III, who allowed him to set up shop in Paris, despite France being a frequent enemy in conflicts over these years. His successor forced him to work in Berlin, where he was led to found a university to make up for a gap in centers of learning. Eventually he was able to talk Wilhelm IV into subsidizing a scientific expedition to Russia, ostensibly to review mining practices but which Humboldt used as a platform for a jaunt of his own interest into remote regions of Siberia.His magnum opus, Cosmos, written over a long swath of his later years, harnessed the work of many other scientists in a synthesis of many fields of science with their political, economic, and philosophical implications. Wulf works to bring his personality and personal life alive, but his choice to never marry or forge serious romantic relationships leaves the question of his sexuality or general deficiencies in sustaining intimate relationships a mystery. Wulf spends the last third of the book making a story of how his inspiration and seminal influences contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution and Lyell’s formulation of geological principles. Direct links to Thoreau’s concepts of man’s integral part of nature and contribution to Transcendentalism are documented. The work of George Marsh in his book “Man and Nature” follows Humboldt’s footsteps in its revelations of environmental degradations from exploitive agricultural practices and overfishing in Egypt and the Mideast. The German biologist Hoeckel was inspired by Humboldt’s thinking about ecology and comparative anatomy to advance marine and developmental biology and use the esthetics of his experience of natural form to add ferment to the Art Nouveau movement. Finally. Humboldt’s personal enthusiasm with exploring wilderness and advocacy of conservation of such regions was a foundation for John Muir’s life and accomplishments with respect to establishments of preserves and national parks. Though the absence of a single clear theory on the order of Darwin’s contributed to Humboldt not sustaining a lasting place in the scientific edifice we all are privy to in school, he does deserve the respect Wulf accords him in the history of ideas.

  • Louise
    2019-06-02 09:32

    Alexander von Humboldt was the first to demonstrate the global unity and co-dependence of plants, animals, land, sea and atmosphere. In this way, he first posed the idea of what we come to view as "nature".His beginnings may have been usual for the German upper classes of the time. His wealthy but absent parents saw to an education that prepared him for a gentleman’s career. His eventual inheritance financed his expedition to South America. Wulf shows the difficulty of planning the trip, getting clearances as well as actually traveling, documenting, measuring, recording and observing an untamed environment. His charmed life could have ended by crocodiles, volcanoes (he explored two while active) or knife edge hikes in thin air and punishing weather.The books that resulted were used by scientists, businessmen and governments and they opened the imagination of the general public. Humboldt was meticulous about these books, sparing no expense for the artisans who made the eventual volumes. They inspired generations of scientists and those who have become known as environmentalists. He developed lifelong associations with colleagues and staff. His brother was his best friend and supporter. He met and knew on varying levels the notables of his time, such as Simon Bolivar (before either were famous); Thomas Jefferson (Humboldt’s respect was mitigated by Jefferson’s slave ownership), Johann Wolfgang Goethe (a friend of his brother’s), Freiderich Willhelm II (King of Prussia who supported Humboldt, despite his republican ideals) and many more.Because Humboldt was frank about the conditions of colonialism, despite years of efforts, the British crown would not issue him a passport to India to document the Himalayas. It took 30 years for another expedition, this one to Russia, a great adventure at age 60 showing not only his physical fortitude, but also his determination. He ignored the edits of the ruler of all Russia by going where his studies took him including a trip into anthrax infested areas.Part V, the last part of the book, describes Humboldt’s lasting influence. He is a hero to Charles Darwin, George Perkin Marsh (an early advocate for preservation), Ernst Haeckel (who carried on his work and aggressively supported Darwin) and John Muir. All cite him in their work. A copy of Muir's notes to his copy of a Humboldt work is reproduced on p. 325.Like Humboldt, Wulf integrates many disciplines in her writing. Unlike some biographers, whom I suspect have read sufficient paragraphs and chapters from items listed in their notes, you get the idea that Wulf has read and absorbed all original historical and literary material (as well as Humboldt’s work) she cites. This is a very comprehensive work. While not a page turner, it is highly readable and keeps your attention.

  • Jaylia3
    2019-06-10 14:28

    A scientific expedition had long been Alexander von Humboldt’s dream, so when he stepped onto the shores of Latin America in 1799 he was beyond excited, and soon began exploring, measuring, comparing, questioning, and chronicling everything: the distribution of indigenous plants, barometric pressure at different altitudes, the relative blueness of the sky, the cultures and customs of local people, rates of river evaporation, the environmental effects of farming, examples of native language, the charge in electric eels, and--maybe most significantly--his thoughts and feelings about it all, because Humboldt believed people learned by their connection to nature so he used comparison and poetic analogies to advance his discoveries and expand his understanding. Humboldt has to be one of the most interesting people I’d almost never heard of. (I checked the index of one of my all time favorite books about the era, Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, and Humboldt does receive a few scant mentions there.)Humboldt’s many visionary achievements have had a lasting impact. He began talking about man-made climate change in 1800, he invented isotherms--lines of temperature and pressure--that we still see on today’s weather maps, he initiated the idea of vegetation and climate zones, he denounced slavery and colonialism when both still had a strong hold, he inspired many great thinkers and leaders of his day and beyond, and he revolutionized how we think about nature by describing it as an interconnected web in which what happens to one part affects everything else. Though colonial powers weren’t crazy about some of his revolutionary political ideas, Humboldt had an energetic charisma that drew people to him and he was widely celebrated in his life. His death was mourned around the globe, and huge world-wide celebrations were held on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. So why isn’t he better known today? One reason Wulf gives is that unlike Newton or Columbus, Humboldt isn’t recognized for a one great discovery--his methods were holistic, combining the hard data of science with art, poetry, history and politics, and his biggest successes involved making science both popular and accessible through his ingeniously imagined graphics and widely read books. The other reason Humboldt fell off radar in the English speaking world is the anti-German sentiment that developed during WWI. Andrea Wulf’s enthusiasm about her subject is contagious, so this book she’s written about Humboldt and his legacy is fascinating, even gripping, and highly readable. Beautiful illustrations from some of Humboldt’s own books are included. Because Humboldt spent time in many places and knew well or influenced a lot of notable people, Wulf has included in-depth, idea-rich portraits of a wide variety of people, including members of the Prussian royal family, Goethe, Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, John Muir, Ernst Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, and Henry David Thoreau. I especially enjoyed reading about Humboldt’s enthusiastic explorations of the world around him, Napoleonic era Paris, the revolutionary history of South America, and Humboldt’s wild ride across Russia. Is Humboldt better remembered in non-English speaking parts of the world? I'd love to have a comment from anyone who knows.I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. If the finished version has color plates instead of black and white it will be even more spectacular.

  • Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
    2019-06-06 08:25

    Not flawless (for me the weakest chapter was on Humboldt and Thoreau), but endlessly fascinating. Before there was Carl Sagan and his Cosmos, there was the great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and his Kosmos. Why have we forgotten him? Because he was German? (That would be depressing.) Because he did not invent one theory in a specific field, but a way of looking at the universe? (Possible, I think. The former is easier to teach in school than the latter.) I don't know. At any rate, it's a pity.Here's to the energizer bunny of naturalists!

  • Chrissie
    2019-06-18 12:36

    Interesting and well written. Filled with pertinent information, yet a bit long-winded at times. The book is not merely a biography covering the life of one man, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). It starts with a description of the world he was born into - Prussia, Pre-Romanticism and the eminent philosophers, poets and writers of the time, i.e. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich von Schiller, to name but a few. Humboldt came to spend long hours with Goethe. These prominent thinkers influenced who he was to become. Their lives and the lives of others Humboldt associated with are discussed. Another two such men are Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Humboldt’s theories, experiments, books, travels and companions are covered. The book does not conclude with his death. It continues, showing how he directly influenced others, in particular Charles Darwin, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. It is through these men that ecology, conservation and preservation has become what it is today. Others are mentioned too. The book ends with the hope that we reclaim Humboldt as our hero or at least re-acknowledge the importance he has played in how we view nature. Humboldt's thoughts and writings lie at the beginning of a chain of men who have brought us to where we are today in the field of environmentalism. How much do we learn about Humboldt’s personality? Well he never kept his mouth shut, and he was indefatigable. In a conversation you couldn't get a word in edgewise. Being with him must have been quite a strain. Whether he was homosexual or not is unclear. How he could have possibly had time for anything other than his artistic, philosophical and scientific pursuits is the prime question. He seems to have had neither the time nor the interest for a lover. He was a fervent abolitionist.The audiobook narration is by David Drummond. I found it too fast, particularly in the beginning. There is just too much information to absorb. Later it gets easier. Some words are unclear. Narration does not influence my rating. Rivers, minerals, lakes, parks and many, many places are named after this Prussian. I didn't even know who he was! It is stated that more places have been named after this man than anyone else. His views have shaped our very concept of how we see nature. He realized back in 1800 the interrelationship between all aspects of nature. He understood that nature is one unified whole, and that an interdisciplinary approach is essential to solving problems, one such being climate control.

  • Charlene
    2019-06-05 14:43

    This book is now #1 on my list of favorite books of all time. When I was 16 I was an unwavering atheist and became incredibly obsessed with my own personal holy trinity: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allen Poe. I loved Darwin's writing style and how he used facts over belief to understand the world. Thoreau's depiction of the world was depressing and heartbreakingly beautiful, just the RX my confused teenage brain needed at that time. It was a fantastic mindgasm to come to understand how Thoreau felt himself outside of the world to a certain extent, while still being in it, so much so, that he saw its beauty so keenly and felt it on a visceral level. Thoreau, to me, was almost a real life Zarathustra (though I am not sure I would agree with my younger self about that anymore). Poe simply excited me to my core. Funny enough, I can only enjoy Darwin in my adulthood. Both Thoreau and Poe lost their hold on me long ago. But for so long, I tried to live my life through their eyes, imagining I was them; the scientist, the transcendental lover of Earth, and the creative writer. I had no idea, until reading this book, that all three of my idols held von Humboldt as their idol and had inspired each of Darwin and Thoreau's major works and inspired Poe's Eureka. To a certain degree, since I consumed those works with such intensity, I feel as if I had been idolizing von Humboldt for so long without ever knowing it. Until reading this book, my knowledge of von Humboldt had come from reading about other scientists, especially Darwin. Everyone knows who Darwin is, what he studied, and what came of that study. He is credited for effecting one of the most major paradigm shifts in the history of science. Yet, how many people have heard of von Humboldt? How many of those who have heard of him were able to retain what they knew of him? How was he depicted? As a side character? As an influence? How many people really know all that he accomplished? Why is his name not as well known as Darwin's? This author brought von Humboldt out of the shadows to place him front and center, demonstrating he was as an important scientific figure as Darwin, if not more so. During his lifetime, von Humboldt set the stage for the theory of evolution, the theory of plate tectonics, the theory of the web of life and ecosystems (which also means he set the stage for the very new study of networks/systems science), and the study of human precipitated climate change. He did all of this hundreds of years before scientists came to understand the depth to which he was trying to describe the earth and larger universe, and how it is connected. Humboldt was extremely passionate about writing for the masses. He wanted to make science relatable to the nonscientist. He believed jargon should be kept in the margins and relatable text should fill every page of a science book, to help the reader connect to the true beauty of the natural world. For Humboldt, there was no need of a god. Understanding the facts of it all *was* religion; it *was* a spiritual experience. Despite his plain writing and ability to convey science on this level, his ideas were still not mainstream because he was on the cutting edge to an extreme degree. Plate tectonics, which he came to understand in the late 1700s- early 1800s would not be understood to any reasonable degree for another 100 years. Ecology would only be mildly understood until now! We are just beginning to understand ecosystems as networks, understanding how life itself emerges, how species emerge, how species are not only connected to smaller ecosystems but how each ecosystem is connected on a global level and ecosystems affect the climate of the earth itself. Two hundred years later, humans are still debating if human hastened climate change is real. With such a tiny amount of information available to him, Humboldt could already recognize the negative effects of human actions on the global health of the planet. Despite being right on the mark about so many phenomena, Humboldt's contributions are largely understated. I understand that this is more the case in America than in various other countries, but considering his significant contribution to almost every aspect of natural science, it should not be the case in any country. Being a German scientists, anti-German sentiments played a role in wiping his name from the many streets and other places that were named for him. Many prewar German scientist's books were burned. It's time to revisit his contribution and pay him the proper recognition. It is quite clear von Humboldt, who believed no race was superior to any other race, would not have agreed with the treatment of the Jewish people in his country and in neighboring countries. Humboldt's inner drive to understand and convey the dynamic nature of the world was unstoppable. As you will learn in this book, he was kept from exploring for much longer than he could bear. The moment he was allowed to go free into the wider world, he did. He spent every penny he had on that exploration as in the aid of others who were also exploring the natural world. He paid for his own printing, his supplies, his travel, etc. He ate almost nothing so that he could fund other scientists to carry out this important work. In this, he very much reminds me of the beautiful Michelangelo. And in a way, von Humboldt was the Michelangelo of the natural world. He studied its beauty in great detail, just as Michelangelo stole a corpse and studied its every muscle and organ. Von Humboldt sculpted that beauty for all to see, but instead of using Carrara marble, he used words in books to create a shape, a vision, that everyone could see. Like Darwin, von Humboldt, at least in his early years, cared more about the science than fame. After he earned his stripes, it appears he was fairly domineering in presence and conversation, sometimes obnoxiously so. However, it seems it might have been a product of aging? I am not sure what to make of that. What I do know is that his work in uncovering the natural laws was every bit as significant as Copernicus', Newton's, Darwin's, and Einsteins, and his name should always appear whenever these familiar examples are given. If you have not read a book focused entirely on von Humboldt, then you have not completed your education of the history of science. It's that cut and dry. And, if you are going to read a book about von Humboldt, make it this one. A+

  • Max
    2019-05-21 10:25

    We are indebted to Wulf for bringing this remarkable individual back to life for us in the 21st century. She is clearly enamored with her subject and not without reason. He was determined, adventurous, meticulous, methodical, original, influential, visionary and inspirational. With his presence, command of language and fact, new ideas and incredible explorations he was able to capture the imagination of those around him even though he could also be emotionally distant, tactless and self-centered. He eschewed interest in the opposite sex and always had close male companions. But his lifestyle and personality quirks did not impede his social acceptance and the far ranging impact of his ideas.Wulf credits Humboldt as being the first to see nature as a global connected whole. She details how he and his writings influenced many, including Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Lyell, Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir and even the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. His books were immensely popular and read by scientists, artists and poets. He used the flowery language of the period to express his feelings about nature, but he also was a biologist carefully collecting extensive collections of specimens from remote environments and a geographer measuring position, elevation, magnetism, temperature and pressure on his expeditions. A science generalist and poetic writer, his fame receded quickly as the nineteenth century wore on and scientific language became more disciplined and science itself more compartmentalized. Anti-German sentiment stemming from two world wars pushed him further into obscurity.Wulf begins with Humboldt’s childhood and young adulthood. We learn about the death of his father as a young boy and the distant mother that left him lonely. But his mother was well off and paid for the best tutors and education. As a young man his position and brilliance enabled him to hobnob with the likes of Goethe and Shiller, to explore science in his own hands in his own way. When his mother died he was free to pursue his dreams of adventure and nature. And despite many delays due to the tumultuous times in late 1790’s Europe, he found his passage through the King of Spain to the New World. In South America he immerses himself in every aspect of nature. He develops his awareness of the interconnectedness of all of nature. At Lake Valencia in Venezuela he realizes how agriculture has changed the ecosystem, lowering water levels, disrupting native flora and fauna. Already a naturalist, he becomes an early environmentalist. He even sees the impact on the area’s weather. He eschews danger, traveling in the untamed jungle and barren plains, and climbing to dizzying heights without modern equipment in the Andes. All the while collecting plant, animal and mineral specimens; meticulously recording temperature, humidity, air pressure, position and elevation.Humboldt visited what are present day Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Cuba and lastly the United States where he met Jefferson in Washington. He saw the ravages of cash crops on the environment and how they made profitable the servitude of Africans and indigenous peoples. Wulf says, Humboldt “was the first to relate colonialism to the devastation of the environment.” He had witnessed the destruction of forests for growing sugar, indigo and other crops grown for export. But perhaps his most profound insight was to link vegetation to climate showing similarities around the globe. He identified plants at high elevations near the equator that were very similar to those in northern latitudes. This idea that life around the world was related was new and begged the question of a shared lineage.Upon his return to Europe, he became a celebrity sought out by scientists, artists, and the social elite. He set about organizing his collections and notes and writing about his work and exploits. He was able to provide a wealth of new species and unique rock collections. His measurements provided the basis for new and refined maps and understanding of climate. His books were immensely popular as he mixed his science with adventure, artistic illustrations and poetic descriptions. Some of his books went beyond naturalism and included social and political commentary about the evils of colonialism and the subjugation of native peoples and slavery. His outlook and writings were an inspiration to his friend Simon Bolivar. Humboldt died in 1859 four months short of his 90th birthday and six months before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.Wulf devotes many chapters to people Humboldt inspired. Humboldt became friends with Simon Bolivar in Paris in 1804. Wulf details Bolivar’s revolution that freed large parts of South America from Spanish rule and encouraged others in South America to start their own revolts. She says the revolution “was also a fight that was invigorated by Humboldt’s writings.” Wulf gives us another chapter showing us how Darwin was inspired by Humboldt’s writing to take his voyage on the Beagle. Darwin had plenty of time to read and reread his copies of Humboldt’s books. The voyage lasted five years from 1831 to 1836. Wulf equates Humboldt’s idea of a web of life with Darwin’s notes, “that all plants and animals ‘are bound together by a web of complex relations.’” She concludes that, “Darwin was standing on Humboldt’s shoulders.” And she gives us a chapter on Thoreau, an avid Humboldt reader, claiming that when he wrote in Walden published in 1854 that he began, “to look at nature with new eyes” that they were in her words “eyes that Humboldt had given him”.Wulf highlights Humboldt’s continuing impact after his death with chapters on George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir. Marsh an American wrote Man and Nature published in 1864 which embodied and extended Humboldt’s ideas. Marsh described the adverse environmental impact of deforestation and agricultural practices that depleted the soil and spoiled lakes and rivers. His book was widely influential spurring on a budding conservation movement. Haeckel a German was a prominent biologist whose book General Morphology of Organisms published in 1866 was a widely read reinforcement of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin called it the “most magnificent eulogium.” Haeckel coined many words we still use such as phylum, stem cell, Protista and encapsulated Humboldt’s vision creating the word ecology which he defined as the “science of the relationships of an organism with its environment.” John Muir was a Scottish born American who loved the forest spending years in the Sierra Nevada where he met many visiting scientists and naturalists including Ralph Waldo Emerson who offered him a position at Harvard. But Muir, another avid reader of Humboldt’s books, stayed in the forest. He used his increasing fame and influence to fight for Yosemite National Park which was created in 1890. In 1892 he helped form the Sierra Club becoming its first president, a position he held until his death 22 years later. He spent three days camping with President Theodore Roosevelt in the park in 1903 which led to the federal government taking over the more loosely managed state controlled sections in 1906. Muir picked up on Humboldt’s and Marsh’s ideas concerning deforestation. But where Marsh proposed conservation, Muir proposed preservation. Marsh wanted to safeguard natural resources, but Muir wanted to completely protect the forest from human development.More than anything else, standing out is Humboldt’s influence on these other great scientists and naturalists. Through them he gave impetus to the conservation and preservation movements and helped shape biological science from the study of evolution to ecology. Wulf shows us how one man’s love of nature expressed in heartfelt yet still scientifically accurate prose made a difference, a difference that is still felt today. Wulf takes her book from interesting to important by showing us what others did with Humboldt’s ideas. Their work makes Humboldt’s life so meaningful. A great read about a fascinating man whose legacy Wulf illuminates for the modern reader.

  • Paul
    2019-06-05 11:40

    When you think of scientists that have formed the way that we think about world around us, the names that tend to come to mind are Newton, Darwin, Wallace, Davy and Einstein. In the mid-19th Century though the most famous scientist in the world was a man called Alexander von Humboldt, a man very few people have ever heard of these days. von Humboldt had a fascination of everything around him; he studied plants, geology, volcanos, animal and the stars the weather and the movement of the planets. Everything fascinated him and he went on major expeditions to South America and across the Russian steppe to China, and bought back detailed notebooks and trunks stuffed full of specimens and samples. He was one of the first scientists to consider the interconnectedness of all natural things, noticing that climate zones were similar on completely different continents, something that didn’t really gain traction until Lovelock’s Gaia theory and his observations led him to predict our effects on the climate decades before anyone else.He was the author of around thirty volumes that became best sellers and were translated into multiple languages. His lyrical writing not only inspired countless other scientists to further their studies, but they stimulated artists and poets to explore their own natural world. He wrote and recived thousands of letters a year, corresponding with American presidents, like Thomas Jefferson and iconic figures Simón Bolívar. Even though he was from Prussia and was a member of King Frederick William III court, he felt his spiritual home was in the intellectual melting pot of Paris, even though he was sometimes considered an enemy by Napoleon. The King insisted he return home, much to his disappointment, but he still spent some of the year there, meeting and talking with fellow scientists. Wulf’s book is a captivating account of the life and achievements of von Humboldt. Just a glance at the comprehensive notes you can see it has taken an immense amount of research to write this book, but it is still very readable without being dry and academic. She has successfully managed to bring to life a scientist whose influence on our understanding of the natural world can still be seen today.

  • Olaf Gütte
    2019-06-08 14:36

    Wirklich eine hervorragende Biografie, von der Autorin sehr gut recherchiert, Humboldt warnte schon seit 1799 bis zu seinem Lebensende vor der Zerstörung der Natur durch den Menschen. Heute tragen wir die Konsequenzen: Schmelzen der Pole durch Erderwärmung und extreme Wetterkapriolen.

  • Jean Poulos
    2019-05-23 14:38

    Wulf’s award winning book is a bit different from the average biography in that it is about a history of Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769-1859) ideas as much as it is about the man. Humboldt was a naturalist, geographer, polymath, explorer and the first environmentalist who at one time was the most famous man in Europe.Wulf reveals Humboldt’s discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zone on different continents (climate zones). The author discusses Humboldt’s prediction of human induced climate change. Humboldt wrote his scientific observations in the poetic narrative of the times as did Darwin. Wulf discusses Humboldt’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar and Goethe. Wulf is a lucid and intellectual writer. The book is a work of scholarship. Wulf allows the complex personality of Humboldt and his wide scope of interests to come through in the writing. Wulf did meticulous research of Humboldt’s diaries, letters and writings. The author quoted from some of the letters which added to the work. Wulf was born in India, raised in German and now lives in London where she writes.I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. David Drummond does an excellent job narrating the book. Drummond is an actor and winner of numerous Audiofile Earphone Awards for audiobook narration.I enjoyed reading this book and learned much about Alexander von Humboldt. Years ago when I was in school I was fascinated by Humboldt. I wish I had this book to read at that time with its wide range of knowledge of Humboldt. If you are interested in biographies, science or nature you will enjoy this book.

  • Bou
    2019-06-18 11:53

    Alexander von Humboldt is not widely known or recognized in the Western World. But it is he who lay the foundations for the human vision of nature as something understandable and part of a closely connected system, where the minute intervention of man can cause devastating results. In this book, Andrea Wulf succeeded in providing great insights into Alexander von Humboldt, ranging from his personal life to the detailed observations and descriptions that he made on his grand voyages, as well as his influence on other scientists, such as Charles Darwin and John Muir.Born to a respected and aristocratic Prussian family on 14 September 1769, from an early age Alexander developed a passion for science and nature. He dutifully continued his education that his parents had layed out for him in science, math and languages. When he was 22, he started working as a mining inspector, where he not only improved the conditions for the miners, but also published his first book on subterranean flora.Alexander's brother introduced him to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great poet and they immediately developed a friendship for life. Goethe introduced Humboldt to the process of subjectivity: in order to truly understand nature, including geology and botany, one must experience and interact with it.This meant that Humboldt was ready to explore the world. After the death of his mother in 1796 and with his inheritance, Humboldt decided to venture out. In 1799 Spain agreed to provide Humboldt and his French friend and botanist Aimé Bonpland passage to South America.While travelling through Venezuela, as they passed Lake Valencia, its particular ecosystem offered Humboldt insight into the importance of trees and the dangers of deforestation. He also came to the realization on how human actions could cause chain reactions in nature and the negative impact this has on the precariously balanced system in nature. Everywhere he looked he could see that people had little understanding of how nature really worked.It was on mount Chimborazo, which he climbed in June 1802, that he got his revelation and all pieces came together: the threads of nature connected everything.When Humboldt returned to Europe, he received a hero’s welcome. His trip received a lot of international attention and his notes and specimens resulted in his first book “Essay on the Geography of Plants”, a revelation and instant success.The book was the first to show the direct relations between plants, climate and geography.The reputation for Humboldt was set and he enjoyed a great prestige in the academic world. He conducted a series of immensely popular lectures where he presented his vision of a deeply connected world to fascinated audiences. In 1828 this resulted in a groundbreaking scientific conference, that united 500 scientists from the world to exchange ideas and unite scientists from all over the world.Humboldt wanted to launch another expedition, but it wasn’t until 1829 when Humboldt was invited by Russia to check whether the Oeral Mountains could hold valuable mineral deposits.Once back in Europe, he created his best known masterpiece “Cosmos”, where the message was that all nature needed to be regarded as part of a unified whole. The book would in the end comprise of five volumes, his last volume published before his death in May 1895.Not only was Humboldt the first to create a new vision of nature, his works influenced other scientists such as Charles Darwin, who decided to embark on the HMS Beagle after reading Humboldt’s books. But also Henry David Thoreau was heavily influenced by Himboldt’s vision.Humboldt’s ideas and influences survive to this day. His new vision has influenced today’s ecological thinking and was of influence for one of the greatest scientists and authors. How we see the world today, is for a great deal thanks to Humboldt, who for the first time was able to realise the intricate structure of the nature around us the devastating impact the tiniest human interventions can have on nature..

  • Andrea
    2019-06-14 09:54

    How is that I've never heard of such a distinguished scientist as Alexander von Humboldt? This is the man that influenced some of the greatest thinkers, was an avid supporter of human rights in the age of slavery, and a proponent of conservationism when humanity was considered the centre of the God-created universe. Humboldt was a visionary that we need in our tumultuous times. He was perhaps not the most easy person to have a conversation with, but the legacy that he left cannot be ignored.Andrea Wulf created a biography that is extremely readable and enlightening, but I thought it was overly padded in places by tangential discussions. This small fault is prominent in last few chapters that outlined entire careers of scientists inspired by Humboldt, and a piece on revolutionary movement in Latin America led by Bolivar. Not that I slogged through these parts, but I expected this to be purely a biography, when The Invention of Nature is more of natural history study from historical point of view. Totally not the author's fault, because this is definitely a worthy read.

  • Amanda
    2019-06-08 10:25

    Alexander von Humboldt was a fascinating man. He has been largely forgotten in the English speaking world. This biography is a pretty comprehensive look at his discoveries. I really enjoy parts of it and found parts of it to be really tedious. He was a visionary and many of his ideas have shaped today's environmental issues. It's pretty amazing how spot on he was about issues we are facing today. If you are interested in the environment and nature I definitely recommend this. I listened to the audio narrated by David Drummond and he did a fine job.

  • Vimal Thiagarajan
    2019-06-03 10:32

    Introducing and factually exploring the life of someone who is almost completely forgotten in the modern world, yet was the most famous man in the world during his long and restless lifetime, someone who is totally missing from modern school and university textbooks, yet was a key inspiration and guiding beacon for many of the celebrated names we find in these same textbooks - biographies seldom get better.An intrepid explorer and the best mountaineer of his time, Alexander Von Humboldt left his home country of Prussia in 1799 and explored the length and breadth of South America on foot for a period of 6 years, an exploration that would not just make him the most famous man of his time, but would change the course of Science, Literature, and the way we think about nature. Through tireless hard work and an insatiable curiosity, and leveraging his prodigious memory and his legendary powers of observation and comparison, Humboldt discovered isotherms and vegetation zones, spoke about continental shift and tectonics centuries before they became accepted parlance, became the first person to discover and conclusively demonstrate human induced climate change, discovered so many things about forests and their complex ecosystems and their impact on climate - ideas which we take for granted these days and do not tend to think someone would have discovered them. Some of these principles have definitely been in vogue in most of the ancient nature-worshipping civilizations of the world, but in this modern age which derides unquestioning tradition with mostly misplaced, utilitarian and short-term reasoning, we would have either completely lost touch with these principles or would have theorized them rather too late without Humboldt.Humboldt also gathered evidence and spoke boldly and vehemently against the devastation of environment caused by the greed of colonial regimes(so much so that the British denied him permission to explore India in fear that he would open many a colonial can of worms and serve it globally), became one of the leading voices against slavery and a prolific writer who didn't just enjoy an immensely wide readership globally but whose towering charisma would rub on to Von Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman among several other writers and poets and would become a key influence on Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Simon Bolivar, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir among other famous and important historical figures. Thomas Jefferson considered Humboldt the most important scientist he had ever met and also solely relied on him to obtain key information about Geography, population and economy during the annexation of Texas.There wasn't a section in the book I didn't savour, though I particularly enjoyed those that dealt with his incredible and arduous Latin American exploration and his odyssey through Anthrax-ridden Russia and Siberia in his sixties. Aside from these, the sections dealing with his long and warm friendship with Von Goethe and the numerous ways in which his ideas led to Darwin's conceptualization of the Origin of species were some of the best sections of the book. The painstakingly well-researched Humboldt-centric mini biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Thoreau, Charles Lyell, Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir came as unexpected treats in an already formidable biography.The New York book review had stated that it is impossible to read The Invention of Nature without contracting Humboldt fever - Couldn't agree more. Its impossible not to come out of this book with genuine wonderment at Humboldt's towering and significant achievements and his legacy to the modern world, and a compelling sense of urgency to seek out newer and abler methods to bridge the ever widening gulf between the self and the natural world.

  • Joachim Stoop
    2019-05-29 11:34

    Von Humboldt was a hero in the old 'Homo Universalis Visionary The world is here and I've got no minute to lose, so let's read, write, travel, talk, explore' kind of way.Andrea Wulf is a heroine for gathering all the information about him that she could find and assembling it into a highly enjoyable and fascinating biography. What a triump!

  • Jo
    2019-06-08 10:54

    The first 2/3 of this book are 5 star material. Wulf vividly depicts Humboldt's travels and his personality. He is a fascinating subject. The last sections really suffers in comparison. Her choice of figures to investigate his legacy through their biography is both too focused and too limited to be truly effective. While I understand her desire to dive deep into Humboldt's influence shoehorning in 5 mini bios of other figures into the end of the book moves the book away from its true center. Leaving Humboldt behind made me want to throw myself on the ground in the middle of the town square and yell about things breaking per my hero AvH.

  • aPriL does feral sometimes
    2019-05-20 10:25

    The book 'The Invention of Nature' is fascinating. It is more than a biography of Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859), who can be described as a polymath genius whose enthusiasm for travel and nature was as momentous for the development of as many branches of science that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was because of his interest in physics. Yet, I have never heard of him until I read this book.Some early Western 19th-century proto-scientists labored all of their life in bleak obscurity until only after their deaths being recognized as major scientific brains and discoverers; others announced their work to newly created scientific societies only to be met with withering scorn. Some inventors were clearly crackpots with one great idea while others were intelligent driven members of respectable aristocrat families and upper-class merchants. (Almost all of these Great Men of Science upset their parents by refusing to study law or medicine in university! Humboldt was one of these children of disappointed parents. I have read a few other science histories, and I have noticed that almost all of these early scientists had parents hoping for a son who would become a doctor or lawyer. Just saying.)However, Humboldt became famous early in his lifetime and all doors were open to him. He met already famous people eager to speak with him, such as President Thomas Jefferson. Others who desired to call him friend went on to illustrious (and nefarious) careers as famous scientists in their own right such as Charles Darwin, well-known writers such as Henry David Thoreau, and Kings, Emperors and Prime Ministers such as Friedrich Wilhelm IV and George Canning, as well as leaders of political revolutions overthrowing those before-mentioned Kings and Emperors such as Simón Bolívar. Humboldt himself was a liberal and he supported the overthrow of the aristocracy, but his income primarily was from a pension paid by two Prussian kings after he went through his own inheritance. He obviously was charismatic, moving easily between many different cultures and social classes, from South America to Europe to Russia.After returning from a five-year exploration of South America with tens of thousands of astronomical, geological and meteorological observations and specimens, he published his first book, 'Essay on the Geography of Plants' at age 32, dedicating it to Johann Wolfgang Goethe, his fellow polymath and best friend (after his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt, who founded the University of Berlin after a career as the Prussian ambassador to Vienna and Britain). The book combined with his achievements and personality made him a famous man, perhaps the most famous respected natural scientist in the world. However, full of energy, wanderlust and curiosity, Humboldt moved on to more explorations crossing over the frontlines of many European wars between France, Prussia, Britain, and Spain, and maneuvering through countries on three continents which were undergoing political revolutions, observing volcano eruptions while mountain climbing without oxygen tanks (yes, he and his companions fainted occasionally) enduring nasty mosquitos, while exposing and warning the public of the dreadful environmental destruction of earth wherever men used the land for agriculture, mining and lumber.Humboldt lived to the age of 89, still receiving famous visitors and writing thousands of letters a month up to his death. His books on the natural sciences, illustrated with his own and other explorers' beautiful art and drawings, inspired Darwin, Thoreau, Ernst Haeckel, John Muir, to name a few. Rivers, mountains, towns and other landmarks were named after him, and he is mentioned in thousands of famous novels. Yet most Americans today have never heard of him, probably because of World War I and WWII having been fought against Germany as an enemy of the United States. I think we should bring this man back into the spotlight and make him a famous hero scientist again. This book is an excellent start.Below I've included some Wikipedia links about the early naturalists, Humboldt, and many of the famous intellectuals, writers and scientists he inspired in later centuries, in hope that these thumbnail histories will convince you, gentle reader, to pick up this book:

  • Marie-Paule
    2019-06-15 13:48

    When in Berlin a few years ago, I came by the magnificent building of the Humboldt University. And I know that quite a few plants are named '... humboldtiensis'. Although I have a PhD in Science I knew nothing more about Alexander von Humboldt. What a shame. On Sep 14, 1869, the 100th birthday of this brilliant man, there were celebrations all over the world: Europe, Africa, Australia and the America's. More than 100 years later, he seems to be forgotten. What a life he has led. In his younger years, he became a lifetime friend of Goethe, who, besides being a poet, was very interested in botanics and geology. They were both interested in the dualism between the external and internal world (Kant and his 'Kritik der reinen Vernunft'). Is the tree in my garden a real tree, or my idea of a tree? Humboldt gradually shifted from pure empirical research towards his own interpretation of nature: he mixed detailed scientific facts with the emotional reactions they invoked. He thought a great deal about 'Life'. A machine can be taken apart and reassembled, but you can't do this with an animal. Why? Von Humboldt’s most important journey was a 5 year-trip through South America. There, he developed the first concept of 'ecosystems' (long before we knew this particular word), explaining that geology, climate, micro-organisms, plants and animals all influence each other. When he travelled through the plains of Los llanos in Venezuela in 1800 (!), he warned for the destructive effects of human activity (large scale agriculture of commercial crops, mining, ...) on the ecosystems. At the same time, he pointed out that the overexploitation of local ecosystems had disastrous effects on the human population as well: slavery, unhealthy working conditions, a shortage of local healthy foods, exploitation of large groups of have-nots by the happy few….. Sounds familiar, no?Does it surprise you that Alexander von Humboldt became one of the best liftetime friends of Simon Bolivar, who fought to liberate South America from its Spanish colonists? All through his live, von Humboldt fought against slavery. He so longed to visit India, but the British government denied him a passport, because they knew how he felt about slavery and he was not willing to compromise…. For the British, he remained a dangerous anti-colonialist actor. Later in life, he made a great journey through Russia, all the way to Mongolia. He held his 60th birthday party in … the pharmacy of Lenin’s grandfather. After his return from South America, von Humboldt lived in Paris and in London, where he met the famous scientists of his time. He inspired a lot of scientists and writers of his time, among others Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkin Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. Indeed, what a life and what a talent… At the end of his life, von Humboldt wrote his magnum opus ‘Kosmos’: an overview of his own and other scientific findings, but above all, his opinion about the correlations and relationships between different scientific theories, and the interrelation between science, art and sociology. For von Humboldt, there were no boundaries between scientific domains or between science and humanities. In short: von Humboldt was a scientist who was far ahead of his time and who remains a lighting example for us all.

  • Libros Prohibidos
    2019-06-10 10:32

    La figura de Alexander von Humboldt es tan fascinante que sólo por conocerla merecería la pena leer el libro. Por conocer al hombre que concibió las ideas modernas de naturaleza y de ecología que nosotros seguimos teniendo en la cabeza, y al que acuñó el concepto de cosmos tal y como lo entendemos hoy en día. El último gran naturalista, que sentó las bases para el gran desarrollo de la Biología y la Geología en el siglo XIX y XX. Crítica completa:

  • Mal Warwick
    2019-05-20 13:42

    He was the most famous man in the world, and more places around the world are named after him than anyone else. To many of the giants of his time — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau — he was a colossus whose genius overshadowed their own. He was the first to describe the web of life on Earth, foreshadowing James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and the first to describe the impact of human activity on the world’s climate. His books, which read like poetry, “were so popular that people bribed booksellers to be the first to receive copies.” Eleven years after his death at age 89, the centennial of his birth was observed by hundreds of thousands of people in huge celebrations around the world.Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.His name was Alexander von Humboldt, and he died in 1859. He had first described climate change in 1800. He “gave us his concept of nature itself.”Andrea Wulf’s engrossing new biography, The Invention of Nature, brings this extraordinary man into the spotlight again after a century and a half. It’s about time. His may well have been one of the finest minds in human history.Humboldt, born into a prosperous family of Prussian aristocrats shortly after the American Civil War, rebelled against the constraints on his life and set out on his own unique path. Though he became best known as a naturalist, world traveler, and author, his interests reached into a far wider range of human endeavor, and Cosmos, the multi-volume book he began to write at the age of sixty-five, encompassed virtually the whole of human knowledge, from botany, geology, and zoology to astronomy, philosophy, and, in effect, the new science he invented: ecology. (Though he didn’t invent that term, his work was the inspiration for the man who did later in the nineteenth century.)As Wulf notes, “Humboldt took his readers from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet into its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of mountains. He wrote about the migration of the human species, about plants and animals and the microscopic organisms that live in stagnant water or on the weathered surface of rocks.” Never before, and never since (to the best of my knowledge), has a single individual mastered so many fields of inquiry so successfully that his contemporaries regarded him as a force of nature. And, in an age when most of humanity lived in thrall to organized religion, Humboldt didn’t once mention God in all the many thousands of pages of his books. Instead, he spoke of a “wonderful web of organic life.”Wulf’s biography of this astonishing man is by no means unreservedly positive. She describes the shortcomings of his personality in embarrassing detail: his tendency to talk nonstop at a rapid rate for hours without permitting interruptions of any kind, regardless of the stature of his listeners; his seeming inability to understand the feelings of others and to show empathy for their pain; his venomous gossiping; and his inability to accept criticism. Alexander von Humboldt was not a nice man.Andrea Wulf is an historian and writer who lives in Britain. The Invention of Nature is her fifth book.

  • David
    2019-05-22 16:44

    Didn't finish before it was due back to the library, but I read enough to be dazzled by Humboldt. First, I must praise this author for writing this book, bringing this once famous and celebrated figure back to our attention. The title is apparently not as hyperbolic as it seems, as her subject really does seem to have given both the public and the scientific community the idea of nature as an interconnected whole. No summary I could offer will do justice to the book, so you will need to read it yourself. And if it is not the kind of book you would read, then at least go to a bookstore or the library and skim enough to get some idea of it, because it is worth knowing about. (Note: yes, this is who Humboldt county in California is named after, and the University in Berlin, and the current in the Pacific Ocean, and many other things besides.)Here's a guy who got Goethe all stirred up, who explored the Amazon and the Andes, loved to get close to an erupting volcano, inspired Simon Bolivar to rebel against Spain, admired the American Revolution but could not understand why his friend Thomas Jefferson did not free the slaves, got Thoreau interested in nature, etc., etc. Seems to have been gay (avant la lettre), as his attachments to other men seem to have been unusual enough to cause his family some concern. Certainly his companions stuck with him through thick and thin, at risk to their lives with some frequency. My favorite is the poor guy who survives fever in the Amazon, crawling along a precarious mountain trail in a howling snowstorm, a hurricane at sea, just for a few examples, only to be berated for not working hard enough to publish their discoveries when they finally get back to Paris. Our hero could wear you out, apparently, not that anyone seemed to mind. And he was enough of a superstar that the King of Prussia kept him at court later in life even though it was no secret that he didn't believe in Monarchy and would support any revolution that might overthrow his patron. Think about that: he didn't worry about pleasing the King, the King worried about keeping him around.The book may seem too thorough to some readers (e.g., me), but when you think about the many volumes written by Humboldt, it's easy to see that she must have felt like this was the short version of the story. So worth checking out!

  • Jim Coughenour
    2019-06-18 14:39

    A fine (re)introduction to Humboldt and his prescient ecological view of nature: that everything is connected and that humanity is capable of destroying the world it's been given. Humboldt appears as a brilliant, even heroic, transitional figure between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, between the positivism of science and the inwardness of art, between Goethe and Darwin. Wulf is also good at demonstrating his influence on other naturalists, not only Darwin but Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh (new to me), Ernst Haeckel and John Muir.Because I'd just finished reading On the Move: A Life, I couldn't help being reminded of Oliver Sacks, who also stood outside his own profession of neurology to capture the human and artistic dimension of knowledge, creating a new kind of scientific literature in the process. I was also intrigued to find out that Humboldt never married. He claimed his passion was only for science, but he was rarely without the company of another charismatic young man. His equally famous brother, Willem, "disliked his brother's intense friendships – probably a mixture of jealousy and a concern for what might have seemed the inappropriate nature of these connections." And finally, to my private embarrassment, I realized I've confused Alexander and Willem my whole life. (Humboldt University in Berlin is named after both of them.)The dark irony is that, although Humboldt was revered his warnings about how humanity was destroying its own environment were largely ignored. What should be obvious to everyone is still the stuff of partisan politics, and the grim conviction deepens that nothing will be done until it is too late, that it is in fact too late already.

  • Bfisher
    2019-06-12 14:36

    Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most prominent scientists of the nineteenth century. When he died in 1859, tens of thousands of mourners marched in his funeral procession. A staggering number of geographical features were named after him in his lifetime. It seems appropriate that the namesake Humboldt River, one of the largest rivers in the Great Basin of North America, disappears from sight in the Humboldt Sinks, much as Humboldt’s reputation has disappeared from modern popular memory.Yet, it is not fitting that Humboldt should be forgotten to our age. Andrea Wulf describes his roles as a founder of biogeography, inventor of isotherms, developer of the concept of ecological systems and the interdependence of life, and as the first scientist to recognize the danger of anthropogenic climate change. He influenced Darwin, Thoreau and John Muir. We recognize and adopt his ideas but have forgotten the person. This book is a useful recovery of the core importance to science and society of Humboldt's work. Unfortunately, in its coverage of Humboldt the scientist, Humboldt the person gets short shrift, aside from a few brief hints. That is my one quibble with this book.

  • Mientras Leo
    2019-06-09 09:28

    Una lectura fantástica, más allá de la divulgación

  • Bettie☯
    2019-06-20 16:26

  • Clif
    2019-06-04 09:44

    Chicago's public radio station, WBEZ, had a program on the statue of Alexander Humboldt in the park named after him, in a neighborhood named after him. The program speculated that not one in a thousand passersby would know who he was. I've no doubt that's true. My only association of the name was with the Humboldt Current that brings cold water up the west coast of South America from Antarctica. With that as background, this book floored me.Humboldt was to the 19th century as Einstein was to the 20th. It's fair to say that everyone knew his name even decades after his death in 1859. He was a powerful influence on Charles Darwin, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. On the seminal voyage aboard the Beagle that took Darwin around the world, his notes are peppered with "as Humboldt said..." whenever something was found that confirmed Humboldt's previous discoveries. Thoreau was a Humboldt devotee.During his lifetime, and he loved life, lectures given by Humboldt were packed, whether in America or Europe. His books were best sellers and he was personally acquainted with everyone who was anyone, from Napoleon (one of the few that didn't like Humboldt) through the royalty of Europe to Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America, and on down from there. He was a font of knowledge on the natural world, was driven by curiosity and would even at an advanced age rush to attend the lectures of someone who knew something he did not, sitting in an audience of college students furiously taking notes as he listened.He had only one foible - he could not stop talking. Only the most determined could get in a comment, but few wished to do so as it would, but only possibly, interrupt the flow of knowledge they wanted to hear. Single his entire life with never any indication of an attraction to women, he bonded easily with men, forming lifelong friendships and exploring for months on end with a partner.His physical endurance and health were phenomenal. He climbed snow covered mountains with none of the equipment we know today, even above levels where oxygen should be used. As others would fall victim to tropical diseases, Humboldt was up at dawn ready to go. Clouds of mosquitoes for days and nights on end were no deterrent if there was a new plant, animal or rock formation to be examined.Not only did he crave knowledge, he wanted everyone to share in it. His Personal Narrative of the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (South America) was devoured by a public as eager to find out what had been found as we today would read the account of a person visiting another solar system. And, speaking of outer space, he took that subject on as well in his quest to tie everything together, writing the multi-volume Cosmos as he neared the end of his life.As Andrea Wulf makes clear in her title, The Invention of Nature, Humboldt was one of the first to come up with the concept of ecosystems, the interconnection of the natural world that allow an environment to thrive if left alone, and change it even to the point of destruction when this or that part is altered. While few of us today know of Humboldt, we live in the conceptual world of nature he created.This book is a wonderful wide-ranging history that covers not only Humboldt's life, but contains brief overviews of the lives and work of Darwin, Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir in relation to Humboldt. Filled with adventure and excitement, Wulf perfectly captures a man to which we are all indebted and one who would be delighted to meet any of us and relate his discoveries.Sad to say, none of his books are in the network of public libraries including the one in my own town.