Monday, April 4, 2016
Alexander Humboldt's broadreaching influence on modern science (Books - The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf)
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) shares the irrepresable energy of her subject. Wulf convincingly contends that the German-born explorer, adventurer, scientist, and author (1769 - 1859) was the creator of our modern understanding of the natural world. His interests extended from volcanoes to plant-life, to climate, to the cosmos and his influence can be seen in the way we comprehend nature as something not to be ruled, but as something that human beings exist within - something complex and "alive." Humboldt is an ideal subject for reconsideration in a modern scientific biography. Wulf paints a picture of Humboldt as a contemporary outsider, offering strong support that he was gay. He warned in the 19th century of the impact humans could exert on climate. Finally, his expertise of the natural world was preserved in dozens of volumes that were appreciated as much as repositories of factual information as they were for their poetry. This passion helped father the contemporary environmental movement, influencing naturalists Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir. It can arguably be appreciated in our own era's melding of the arts and sciences in an effort to broaden understanding of our small place but potentially devastating impact in a very large and complex system.