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.|
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.
|Humboldt's lily. |
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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.
- The Biological Heritage Library (long may it flourish) has an impressive list of works by Humboldt, including the Personal narrative, Cosmos, and a collection of his letters. Most if not all of them are available for download, and there are also links to help you find each book in a library.
- There are a number of books about Humboldt; here are two to get you started: Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American journey that changed the way we see the world, by Gerard Helferich (find in a library), and The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (find in a library).