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The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (2015)

by Andrea Wulf

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1,443599,087 (4.15)121
A portrait of the German naturalist reveals his ongoing influence on humanity's relationship with the natural world today, discussing such topics as his views on climate change, conservation, and nature as a resource for all life. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces counties, towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing volcanoes, racing through Siberia, or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science. Among Humboldt's most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature as 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 case that it was Humboldt's influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau's Walden. Wulf shows how Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and champions a renewed interest in this vital player in environmental history and science.--Adapted from book jacket.… (more)
  1. 10
    Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (thorold)
    thorold: Kehlmann's ironic fictional view casts a rather different light on Humboldt from Wulf's, and possibly a slightly unfair one, but both are interesting.
  2. 00
    A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts (nessreader)
    nessreader: Early 19th century field scientists travelling the globe with great courage and endurance. Both superbly written biographies
  3. 00
    Georg Forster oder Die Liebe zur Welt by Klaus Harpprecht (ecureuil)
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Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
An exceptionally well researched biography about "The Lost Hero of Science", Alexander von Humboldt. Andrea Wulf describes Humboldt's unusual and exploratory life by piecing together his letters to colleagues and friends, and his books, into a narrative from his birth in the late 17th Century to his final days in Berlin in the mid-18th. Humboldt was a polymath, as comfortable with art and philosophy as he was with scientific measurements, and his passion for nature, and for people, resounds today, as Wulf highlights, even if he is often forgotten.

Wulf focuses the narrative not only on Humboldt's achievements, but on how he influnced other scientists, artists, economists, philosophers and politicians. His research into nature, the climate, the 'net' of life, and people was only matched by his generosity and social engagement. In his youth he met and was inspired by the poet Goethe. He travelled with scientists and partied with writers and artists. He held court with the Prussian King, and met Thomas Jefferson in the US. He shared his knowledge with as many as he could, eventually influencing Charled Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, Frederic Edwin Church and Henry David Thoreau among many others, either directly (by meeting and working with them) or indirectly (through their work).

The depth of Wulf's research is astounding, and few writers have committed so much to a single subject, in an ironic contradiction to he subject's sprawling array of specialisms. Unfortunately, her writing is often filled with superlatives, mixed metaphors or occasional assumptions, and as a result the writing is sometimes frustrating. Nevertheless, the breadth of information, taken as a guiding point to Humboldt and 19th Century science/philosophy, makes this one of the best biographies I have read and an easy one to recommend. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
What an amazing book! Before this book, I knew his name, but didn't realize how he shaped intellectual life in the 19th century. It's hard to overstate the influence of Humboldt on 19th century writers and thinkers like Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, Goethe, Edgar Allen Poe, Wordsworth, Byron. He mentored generations of scientists, and inspired artists and scientists to bridge the perceived gap between art and science. Apart from an explorer and scientist, he also was fiercely abolitionist, and he inspired Bolivar in his efforts to free South America from colonialist powers.
He was the first person to write about nature from a holistic perspective, warning against human impact on climate and the environment. He described the earth as ‘a natural whole animated and moved by inward forces’. Humboldt called his book describing this new concept Cosmos, having initially considered (but then discarded) ‘Gäa’ as a title, predating Lovelock’s ideas by more than 150 years.
Almost forgotten nowadays, it's high time for a revival of Humboldt, and this book is an excellent start.
( )
  Cuchulainn | Jun 7, 2020 |
I was never taught a thing about this man in any of my courses, whether HS or college. Odd, right? Especially since he was a man so unambiguously RIGHT about so many things, had universal acclaim in his lifetime and for a long time afterward, but has, since WWI and WWII, been relegated to the dustbin of history because he HAPPENS to have grown up Prussian. That's Germany for you young whippersnappers not hip to what they called themselves back in Mozart's time.

So, WTF?

Here are some really cool bits, yo. He almost single-handedly spawned the travelogue industry... I mean, the Naturalist movement, those wandering scientist/athletes who cataloged and drew and took umpteen samples all around the world and did the job of classification, theorizing, and understanding the world we live in.

This polymath of a man was also of a mind that all sciences should interact, that inclusiveness and interconnectedness in all branches of thought, processes, and nature ought to be the top goal. Details are important, but the big picture is even MORE important. He was good friends with Goethe and many poets and influential writers. Thoreau. He heavily influenced Darwin.

Humboldt was known around the world as one of the most well-loved scientists of all time. He was a walking encyclopedia. When he died, he was mourned around the world.

A little more interesting to us, in this modern day, he was also warning everyone, in a serious manner, about the dangers of an oncoming ecological disaster. He saw how, by our greed and demands, we destroy nature and the systems within it.

How we cause the extinction of species.

He was one of the first environmentalists. That's enough to love... but for me, I personally love the fact he was one of the most hardcore proponents of interconnectedness and systems theory. :)

Yes, science and poetry get along VERY well. :) ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
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. ( )
  PDCRead | Apr 6, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
Wulf’s The Invention of Nature shines its spotlight on that arc of environmental knowledge linking Humboldt’s late eighteenth century to our twenty-first. If he was ever forgotten in the English-speaking world, then this biography places him once again where he belongs, with Charles Darwin and James Cook, Ernest Shackleton and David Attenborough, Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, the great natural historians and scientific adventurers. ... It doesn’t matter that Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is a bit breathless in keeping up with its dazzling hero, and a bit coy about his relationships, because above all the book is intelligent, an optimistic history, well researched, well written, and an ecological cri de coeur.
 
Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt is the ecological visionary and humanist. Despite some reiteration, her book is readable, thoughtful and widely researched, and informed by German sources richer than the English canon. It is the first formal biography in English for many years and may go some way toward returning this strange genius to the public.
 
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Epigraph
Close your eye, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise, from the simplest tone to the highest harmony, from the most violent, passionate scream to the gentlest words od sweet reason, it is by Nature who speaks, revealing her being, her power, her life, and her relatedness so that a blind person, to whom the infinitely visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard.

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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To Linnéa (P.o.P.)
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Alexander von Humboldt was born, on 14 September 1769, into a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family who spent their winters in Berlin and their summers at the family estate of Tegel, a small castle about ten miles north-west of the city.
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A portrait of the German naturalist reveals his ongoing influence on humanity's relationship with the natural world today, discussing such topics as his views on climate change, conservation, and nature as a resource for all life. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces counties, towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing volcanoes, racing through Siberia, or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science. Among Humboldt's most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature as 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 case that it was Humboldt's influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau's Walden. Wulf shows how Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and champions a renewed interest in this vital player in environmental history and science.--Adapted from book jacket.

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