On The Shelf

On the Shelf – The Invention of Nature (by Andrea Wulf)

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The Sunday Times calls it “magnificent”, the Mail on Sunday “exhilarating”. I say that the latest biography of Alexander von Humboldt, “The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf, is a door teleporting you to a world of amazing adventures and explorations, relentless quests for data and information about the world we live, ground-breaking discoveries that shaped the way we relate to nature, and explosions of ideas that have shaken the scientific world at Humboldt’s time and given us some of the greatest advances of science.
Alexander von Humboldt’s name is in absolute the most used namesake around the world for streets, schools, natural parks, plants, animals, natural events and much more. Even a sea on the Moon and two asteroids are called after him. Nevertheless, not many of us have heard about him.
Who was he? Why are so many things in the world named after him? What did he do that was so special? The best way to find it out is to read Wulf’s masterpiece.

Ok, I may sound overly excited about it, but I’ve always been loving books that involve me and transport me into other lives and worlds. This book does it. This book is the product of Wulf’s research through countless archives and sources, correspondence, books written by Humboldt, books read by Humboldt, original versions, translations, newspapers, Humboldt’s personal belongings and more.  She even followed in his footsteps around the world and undertook the same journey upon which Humboldt embarked. “In Quito, I held Humboldt’s original Spanish passport in my hands – the very papers that allowed him to travel through Latin America. […] The most exciting moment was when I finally climbed Chimborazo, the mountain that had been so elemental to Humboldt’s vision. […] My admiration for Humboldt grew with every step. He had climbed Chimborazo with an injured foot (and certainly not in walking boots as comfortable and sturdy as mine), loaded with instruments and constantly stopping to take measurements” writes Wolf in her Prologue to the book. It is perhaps this dedication that Wolf put in her work, trying to understand him and his thoughts, reliving moments he had lived in his life and literally following Humboldt’s steps that makes this biography the exhilarating adventure that it is. Wulf’s narrative is never boring; on the contrary, it’s vivid, evocative. She transports you in Humboldt’s world, in his travels, his thoughts, his legacy. Historical moments that steered Humboldt’s life and decisions, or that have been influenced by him, become part of the narrations in a natural way. The impressive amount of information relayed to us taught me a lot about why Humboldt’s name is so widespread to reach the lunar surface and beyond. Following, just a brief excerpt of what you can learn from this book.

Alexander von Humboldt is the father of ecology and climate research: the concept of human-induced climate change has in fact first been described by Humboldt during his journey through Latin America. Climate zones, the magnetic equator, isotherms: all of this has been discovered or described by him.

Alexander von Humboldt has also influenced the revolution in Latin America: Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, was a friend of Humboldt and his revolutionary visions have been ignited by Humboldt’s stance that the southern American Spanish colonies needed independence.

Alexander von Humboldt is the reason why we have the “Origin of Species”: Charles Darwin, a young medical student uninterested with the medical career, joined the Beagle in his expedition after reading Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative”, a book which triggered a “burning zeal” in him. We all know what we owe to the expedition of the HMS Beagle; what we don’t know is that Humboldt’s vision of a cosmic web inspired Darwin’s observations and ideas.

Alexander von Humboldt was also a science communicator and an advocate for scientific cooperation: his books reporting about his travels and scientific discoveries were written in such a way to appeal to a non-scientific audience; they were being read by everyone. He would go from party to party in Paris, and from dinner to dinner in London, to entertain society and scientists with his scientific reports and tales from his explorations. Humboldt also started the first big global scientific cooperation, the “Magnetic Crusade”, in which climate scientists all over the world were collecting and sharing magnetic and climatic information.

The Invention of Nature is as actual as a book can be. Our current fights for the protection of ecosystems and global climates started at the beginning of the year 1800 at Lake Valencia, in North Venezuela. The concept of a web of life that connects everything, majestically evoked in Humboldt’s three-foot by two-foot Naturgemälde, reminds us that natural objects and events are strongly interconnected and influence each other. The call for stronger scientific cooperation and for open data that is nowadays longed and (vastely) ignored was in fact first made by Humboldt, who would share his samples and datasets with any other scientist interested for the sake of scientific advancements.
We owe Humboldt much more than we could even imagine; we probably haven’t learnt all that we could learn from him.

Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Radhika Menon. Featured image: Carine Thalman.

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