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.