My Rating: 4 out of 5
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist – more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there’s a penguin, a giant squid – even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.
His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy’s Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolívar’s revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’.
Taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – racing across anthrax-infected Russia or mapping tropical rivers alive with crocodiles – Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and The Invention of Nature traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it’s only coming into its own now. Alexander von Humboldt really did invent the way we see nature.
I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley and John Murray Press for providing me with this copy.
It seems so unlikely that someone who was so influential in so many areas of science, art, and philosophy could be largely forgotten, but that seems to be the case with Humbolt.
Get ready to feel completely inadequate with your life achievements to date as you read through this chronology of his astonishing life and career.
Individual events are barely lingered on for any time at all before the book races on to the next event. This is a matter of necessity for the sheer amount of material to be covered.
Humbolt travelled to an incredible number of places, and took meticulous interest in every detail of every place he visited. He advised US presidents, inspired revolutionaries, artists, poets, authors, and recognised and documented the effect of human actions on nature before anyone else.
The first two-thirds of the book cover Humbolt’s remarkable life, and the final third covers some of the most notable of those who went on to make world-changing achievements after Humbolt’s death, inspired by and following on from Humbolt’s work.
The book is written in an easy, conversational style that feels like having a glass of wine with a friend, and being told a huge, incredible, and compelling anecdote. I was hanging on its every word from the opening scene until the closing conclusions.