On a scientific rock star

All but forgotten today, Humboldt in the early 19th century was a scientific rock star. By the time he returned to Europe in 1804 after years exploring such wild territories as the Orinoco River in Venezuela and the volcanoes of the Andes, he was a continental celebrity, second in fame only to Napoleon. In the Americas, too, Humboldt cast a long shadow—even though he was a “foreign, aristocratic intellectual who visited the United States exactly once,” as Sachs writes. His ideas inspired a generation of quintessentially American naturalists and intellectuals, among them Thoreau, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and the Hudson River School landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. The centennial of Humboldt’s birth, in 1869, was “proclaimed across the whole North American continent,” writes Sachs. “It is possible that no other European had as great an impact on the intellectual culture of nineteenth-century America.”

From this book review in Audubon magazine; link via A&L Daily. Here are the passages about Humboldt’s philosophy and his writing style:

Explorers tend to be remembered as swashbuckling, flag-planting daredevils, but Humboldt was an egghead, a thinker who valued insight above conquest and glory. His lifelong goal was to comprehend how the earth’s natural systems are woven together, to understand the interdependent biological loops that link plants to animals to climate to soil. Humboldt made major contributions to plant ecology, geography, and vulcanology (the study of volcanoes), among other sciences; his crowning glory was probably the massive five-volume work Cosmos, which articulated a grand theory of natural history. Humboldt’s philosophical approach had many of the elements that presaged modern-day environmentalism, including a deep respect for wild places and the belief that human activities may have all kinds of complex and unforeseen consequences.

In his writing, Humboldt combined a passionate love of wilderness with an appreciation of the limits of science to reveal and control the mysteries of the natural world. In one passage from Sachs’s book, Humboldt clambers to the top of an Ecuadoran volcano, where he is shaken by constant volcanic tremors and nearly suffocated by fumes. Yet he is giddy with scientific delight, taking measurements all the while, and later writes: “In the New World, man and his productions almost disappear amidst the stupendous display of wild and gigantic nature.”

Looks like an interesting book! Before I sign off, here is Wiki on Humboldt. Have fun!

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