If you’re like me, you had no idea who Alexander von Humboldt was prior to this surprisingly well-received book. So why read a book about him? Well, you’ve surely heard of the people he influenced: e.g. Darwin, Thoreau, Jefferson, Bolivar, Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Muir—to name a few.
Humboldt was one of the top scientists of his time, but his influence extended far beyond that aspect of his life. Much of the thrill of this book comes from Humboldt’s expeditions to Latin America and Russia. He faced alligators, electric eels, a capsized ship, and natural disasters. He also made Herculean efforts to arrange a Himalayan expedition, but politics and personalities intervened to delay him until he was too old to make the trip. (It should be noted that when Humboldt summited Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador in the early 1800’s, it was believed to be the highest peak in the world [at 6268m, or 20,600ft.] Needless to say there was a lot unknown about the Himalaya at the time—e.g. Everest is 8848m, or over 29,000ft.) While Humboldt produced specific breakthroughs and discoveries (e.g. inventing isotherms and discovering the magnetic equator), much of the inspiration he provided was in showing the interconnectedness of nature and the potential for unintended consequences.
As a Prussian aristocrat, Humboldt was born into a position to have influence but it was his ideas and his personality that made him so sought after. He could be arrogant, but was humbled in the face of nature. He was charismatic, but did not suffer fools kindly. He was adamantly anti-slavery and strongly opposed efforts of religion to stymie science in order to delay the toppling of their sacred cows.
The book is arranged into 23 chapters, divided among five parts. Part I describes his youth and the time leading up to the American expedition that would make him a legend. Part II describes his experiences gathering specimens and observations in Latin America, with a chapter about his meeting with Thomas Jefferson on his way back to Europe. Part III covers the period he spent in Europe after his expedition to the Americas. It was during this time that he wrote up his observations and hypotheses about nature. It was a productive time, but Humboldt missed nature. Part IV covers two important topics: the expedition through Russia and some of the more important ideas and people Humboldt influenced—e.g. Darwin. By this time he was well-known, and the books that had thus far come out were much in demand. Part V continues the theme of Humboldt’s influence on great thinkers, but with a focus on ideas that were a bit slower to develop.
I enjoyed this book. Interestingly, it follows a chronological format. That may seem a less than profound observation for a biography, but it’s less common to begin with the earlier years of life because those are typically the boring bits and there’s a desire to get into the meat of the story. (To some degree the author does this with a prologue that describes the Chimborazo trek.)
I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in science, ecology, and nature, as well as those interested in what it was like to make a scientific expedition in those days, well before Darwin.