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The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science (2015)

by Andrea Wulf

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,397836,464 (4.14)144
Science. Nonfiction. The acclaimed author of The Brother Gardeners and Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of the visionary German naturalist whose ideas continue to influence how we view ourselves and our relationship with the natural world today. Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infested Siberia. He came up with a radical vision of nature, that it was a complex and interconnected global force and did not exist for man's use alone. Ironically, his ideas have become so accepted and widespread that he has been nearly forgotten. Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his investigation of wild environments around the world; his discoveries of similarities between climate zones on different continents; 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 Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how his writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Wordsworth, Darwin, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt's influence on John Muir that led him to his ideas of preservation and that shaped Thoreau's Walden. Humboldt was the most interdisciplinary of scientists and is the forgotten father of environmentalism. With this brilliantly researched and compellingly written book, she makes clear the myriad, fundamental ways that Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world.… (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
    Georg Forster oder Die Liebe zur Welt by Klaus Harpprecht (ecureuil)
  3. 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
  4. 00
    Ansichten der Natur by Alexander von Humboldt (Dariah)
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» See also 144 mentions

English (76)  Spanish (3)  German (2)  French (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (83)
Showing 1-5 of 76 (next | show all)
Fantastic. Places Humboldt firmly at the center of naturalism and ecology, where he belongs ( )
  cspiwak | Mar 6, 2024 |
A great read about the man who 'discovered' the world. Wulf is a superb writer. ( )
  ben_r47 | Feb 22, 2024 |
In 1829, Alexander von Humboldt, while exploring the Amazon River, its flora, geology, its wildlife and human population, recognized the impact of deforestation on the landscape and the climate.

THAT WAS ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY YEARS AGO!!!!

And that was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Today the government of Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro reverses efforts to save the Amazon River, it’s tributaries, and its indigenous cultures. Fires burn unceasingly in the Amazon rain forest while the world and climatologists beg the Brazilian Government to change course and allow the Amazon to remain one of the world’s critical sinks for carbon emissions.

Von Humboldt lit the fire under science that became the science of ecology and a recognition that humankind does not stand apart from nature, and that all living things work together or they don’t work at all.

Von Humboldt inspired his older friend poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and helped light the fire that was to become German Romanticism at the beginning of the 19th century and he inspired Charles Darwin to travel to South America where he first gathered data for his earth shattering theory of evolution.

Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and thousands more soaked up von Humboldt’s writing. And there were a lot of them. Many, many volumes of his travels, his scientific observations, and the thousands of letters a year he was writing even up until his death at 89 in 1859.

Von Humboldt measured everything he could find including the Earth’s magnetism at different altitudes while he crawled up enormous volcanoes in the Andres in snow and rain.

And he inspired revolutionary Simon Bolivar to democratize the Spanish possessions of South America and hypothesized a century before it could be proven that the continents drifted apart.

Even as a chamberlain to King Wilhelm of Prussia von Humboldt agitated in favour of ending slavery in Europe and America and he united scientists across Europe with his ideas, his enthusiasm, and often with money from his own pocket. The man was a giant in his influence on the west.

As much as I enjoyed this book I found it excruciating as time goes by and we miss the obvious signposts that human intervention is slowly destroying the ecosphere. First von Humboldt, and after him German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, Americans James Madison, George Perkins Marsh, and Scots immigrant to the US John Muir could see what was coming.

Biographer Andrea Wolf picked up on many of influences of the age and von Humboldt’s influence on later ages. Yet he lived contemporary with so many more geniuses including Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky as well as Napoleon Bonaparte. Von Humboldt wasn’t a music lover but he may have been as great a genius as these others. ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
A fascinating but frequently unfocused history of one of the most important yet forgotten persons of the 19th century. ( )
  Treebeard_404 | Jan 23, 2024 |
There are a lot of reasons to like this book. It tells a part of the history of science which is not often explored. Wulf does this with an enthousiasm that is infectious. Her writing is clear, not overly poetic and you can really notice her fascination with Humboldt. Also, it can't be that easy to write an easily accessible, historical biography about a scientist, however interesting he might be.

I would have liked to read more about Humboldt's travels in South America and Russia. Instinctively, I expected the bulk of the book to be about these adventures. However these chapters flew by while Humboldt travelled from Cuba to Peru in a matter of paragraphs.

If there was one annoyance in reading this book, it was the repetition that started to occur halfway through. I did not need to be told every page that Humboldt loved nature, that he talked very fast, that he understood things in a profoundly unique way, that he loved nature, that nobody had ever done what he had done and that he loved nature very much. As I started to notice this pattern I also started to glaze over some parts, especially the last few chapters.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed the book and I share Wulf's confusion as to why Humboldt is not more prominent in our history books. ( )
  bramboomen | Oct 18, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 76 (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.
 

» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wulf, Andreaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Drummond, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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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.
They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. (Prologue)
Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. (Epilogue)
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Science. Nonfiction. The acclaimed author of The Brother Gardeners and Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of the visionary German naturalist whose ideas continue to influence how we view ourselves and our relationship with the natural world today. Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infested Siberia. He came up with a radical vision of nature, that it was a complex and interconnected global force and did not exist for man's use alone. Ironically, his ideas have become so accepted and widespread that he has been nearly forgotten. Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his investigation of wild environments around the world; his discoveries of similarities between climate zones on different continents; 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 Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how his writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Wordsworth, Darwin, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt's influence on John Muir that led him to his ideas of preservation and that shaped Thoreau's Walden. Humboldt was the most interdisciplinary of scientists and is the forgotten father of environmentalism. With this brilliantly researched and compellingly written book, she makes clear the myriad, fundamental ways that Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world.

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