Friday, September 13, 2013

The last Renaissance man?

September 14 marks the 244th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt's birth. He's probably not as well known as he should be; he was a fascinating person: an adventuresome traveler, a careful observer, a prolific writer, and a polymath who contributed to a wide range of scientific fields.

Humboldt was born in Berlin, and even as a child, he collected and labeled plants and bugs. In 1790, the year he turned 21, he published work on the mineralogy of basalts along the Rhine Rhiver, and this was followed by a flora of Freiburg in 1793 and an experimental work on muscles and nerve fibers in 1797. He was evidently insatiably curious and eager to prepare himself for life as a scientific explorer.

1814 self-portrait of Humboldt.
His first big trip, from 1799 to 1804, took him to South America. On this Latin American journey, he visited Venezuela (including a trip up the Orinoco River), Cuba, Colombia, and Ecuador. Before returning to Europe, he visited the US and was a guest of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote of Humboldt: "The treasures of information which he possesses are inestimable ... ." Back in Europe, it took him more than 20 years to write up all the material he brought back. After many years of writing in Paris (an enviable fate right there), Humboldt traveled to Russia later in his life.

This brief description can't begin to do justice to Humboldt's energy and curiosity and his many achievements. He carried the best scientific instruments of the time and measured everything he could, taking copious notes on the natural history and people of the places he visited. This reflects his belief that the complex relationships we see in the natural world could be understood through careful observation and data-taking without recourse to the supernatural. He conducted mineralogical surveys, collected flora and fauna, and gathered massive amounts of social and economic data about Cuba in particular.

Humboldt made major contributions to a formidable array of disciplines: examining the Earth's magnetic field and coining the term magnetic storm; introducing Europe to the use of guano as a fertilizer; examining the volcanoes and volcanic rocks of the New World and gathering data that weeded out incorrect geological hypotheses. He is perhaps best known for establishing the field of biogeography, which investigates the combined influences of climate, geology, and biology on animal and plant life in an area.

Photograph of Humboldt's lily
Humboldt's lily.
©First Light under CC Attrib license.

This desire to synthesize various fields of scientific knowledge is the guiding principle behind his crowning work, the Cosmos, which aimed "to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces." This mighty effort has a realistically humble subtitle, A sketch of a physical description of the universe. Four volumes were published late in his life (he lived to be nearly 90), and a fifth, incomplete, volume was published after his death in 1859. A journal describing his 1799–1804 travels, Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America, during the years 1799-1804, may be his most-read book today, and it inspired Charles Darwin among others, but the list of his written works extends well beyond these two classics.

Humboldt has an astonishing number of things named after him, including species of penguin, squid, lily, orchid, and dolphin, and two tree species. I read somewhere that he has more geographical features named after him than anyone else. I don't know how you'd go about verifying that, but his name certainly is all over the map. In the US, at least 10 states, as best I can tell, have towns named Humboldt, and 3 have counties named for him. There's Humboldt State University in California, plus a university in Berlin named for him and his brother and a university in Venezuela named for him.

Geological features bearing his name include Humboldt Glacier in Greenland, Humboldt River in Nevada, and mountains in North America, South America, and New Zealand. The cold current that runs up the western coast of South America is called the Humboldt Current, and in 2011 the name Humboldt Seamount Chain was accepted for an underwater mountain range off the southwest coast of Chile. There's even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon, extending to the far side, a place I'm guessing Humboldt might have wanted to visit, given the chance.

In addition to his scientific brilliance, Humboldt also expressed some admirable human sentiments. I'll leave you with this quote from volume 2 of the Cosmos:
While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, but none in themselves nobler than others. All are, in like degree, designed for freedom.

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