Alexander Von Humboldt, the last person who knew everything

In June 1802, halfway through his five years of scientific exploration of Spanish America, Alexander von Humboldt set out to scale Chimborazo, a 20,564-foot volcano in the Cordillera Occidental of Ecuador. At the time, it was thought to be the tallest mountain in the world (a claim recently questioned by scientists measuring from the center of the earth).

Humboldt began to climb the mountain at the head of a party of seven, which was soon reduced to four. “The Indians who came with us left saying we were trying to kill them,” Humboldt recalled in a letter to his brother. They trudged along: Humboldt, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, the Ecuadorian hidalgo Carlos de Montúfar and an anonymous servant loaded with instruments. Lacking even the most basic climbing gear, the foursome continued their ascent, sometimes crawling over sharp sections on all fours. Humboldt noted his lack of mental acuity which he correctly attributed to lack of oxygen at altitude, but it was a 60-foot crevasse that finally stopped them. Even Humboldt couldn’t imagine a way around it. Even so, the group had climbed higher than any European in recorded history, reaching 19,286 feet by Humboldt’s careful calculations (the Incas had climbed higher, though archaeological evidence of their exploits does not surface before nearly two centuries).

Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland near the foot of the Chimborazo volcano, in an 1810 painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch. Wikimedia Commons

It was here, on the slopes of Chimborazo, as clouds offered a view of the surrounding landscape, that Humboldt was struck by the revolutionary belief that the world was a single, web-like, interconnected organism.

Humboldt’s ideas about the natural world were a revelation. He wrote so prodigiously upon his return that he later admitted to having lost track of the exact number of books he had written. (The tally reached 30 published volumes, not including his journals of his explorations in South America, Cuba and Mexico, which ran to 4,000 pages and grossed $13.7 million in 2013. That’s in addition to some 30,000 letters he wrote to about 2,800 people.)

All these writings made Humboldt the most famous scientist of his time and a worldwide influence on all fields of scientific research. Charles Darwin simply proclaimed him “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived”.

Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769 into a prominent Prussian family and began to explore its natural environment from an early age. He was pushed academically by his precocious older brother, Wilhelm, who became a noted diplomat, philosopher, and linguist in his own right.

As a young man, to appease his demanding and emotionally distant mother, Alexander studied geology and took a job as a mines inspector. During this short career, Humboldt opened a free school for miners (paid out of pocket) and sought to establish an emergency relief fund for injured workers. He also designed a miner’s lamp that would work in the oxygen-poor air of the mines. Testing him marked the first of many times his scientific curiosity would nearly kill him; the lamp continued to burn long after Humboldt passed out from oxygen deprivation. A colleague “groped for me in the dark and found me unconscious next to the lamp,” Humboldt recalls.

Humboldt excelled in mining – the mines under his supervision produced more gold in his first year than they had produced in the previous eight years – but no subject could hold his interest for long. His first book was a botanical treatise, written in his spare time and published when he was 23. Next he produced two volumes on the effects of electrical impulses on muscle movement. For this, he resorted to self-experimentation, attaching electrodes to open wounds in his back and charging himself with electric current to observe the results.

Humboldt’s Naturgemälde depicts the Chimborazo and Cotopaxi volcanoes in cross-section, with detailed information on plant geography. Observations made by Humboldt on the Chimborazo more than 200 years ago have been used to document climate change. Wikimedia Commons

The death of his mother left him with enough fortune to finance his scientific adventures, and in 1799 he left for Latin America to satisfy his curiosity for, well, everything. “I will collect plants and animals, measure temperature, elasticity, magnetic and electrical content of the atmosphere, dissect them, determine geographic longitudes and latitudes, measure mountains,” he wrote to his bankers. “But that’s not the main purpose of my trip. My true and unique focus will be to investigate interconnected and intertwined natural forces and see how the inanimate natural world exerts its influence on animals and plants.

He brought with him six bullock carts full of scientific instruments and set about measuring everything from the curvature of the earth to the blue of the sky. Attracted by the unknown, Humboldt explored the tropical forests of Venezuela, the high Andes of Ecuador and Peru, the ancient ruins and the contemporary economy of Mexico. At age 30, Humboldt embarked on his first major expedition, a 1,725-mile exploration of Venezuela’s Upper Orinoco River beginning in February 1800. He set out from the coast in a large canoe with a dog, his great friend and collaborator Bonpland, and a crew. native paddlers. For 75 days, travelers lived on rice, ants, cassava, river water and sometimes monkeys. Humboldt returned with a detailed map of the river – including confirmation of its connection to the Amazon basin – and the story of another scientist who had a near-death experience.

To satisfy his curiosity about the biology of electric eels, Humboldt had persuaded the villagers to collect hundreds of them, which they accomplished by dashing into the river with wild horses. The eels released their electrical charges onto the horses (some of whom drowned in the melee) allowing the villagers to scoop the exhausted eels into Humboldt’s canoe with long sticks, until the damp canoe floor squirmed with them. When Humboldt touched the highly charged water accumulated in the hull, he received a shock so powerful that it left him unconscious for several hours. The moment he regained consciousness, he asked for a pen and paper to record the details of his physiological distress.

After a stay in Cuba, he and Bonplant continued a nine-month, 1,300-mile trek through the Andes, scaling Pichincha (15,696 feet) and nearly reaching Chimborazo before continuing to Peru in search of the sources of the Amazonia. From Lima, he sailed to Mexico, recording along the way the northward flow of cold water that now bears his name: the Humboldt Current.

Humboldt’s reports included detailed descriptions of hundreds of plants and animals never before mentioned in scientific literature. His work has contributed to the advancement of many fields, including geology, geography, archaeology, biology, zoology, and oceanography. He expanded the science practiced from mere description to examination.

Humboldt and Bonplant in an oil painting by Eduard Ender, 1856. Wikimedia Commons

To make sense of his prodigious notes — which included tens of thousands of astronomical, geological, and meteorological observations — Humboldt began connecting data points with lines, a technique he called isotherms, which we still use today. today. When we look at modern weather and topographic maps, we look at Humboldt isotherms.

His writings have inspired world-changing thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Darwin. His discoveries and scientific writings sparked the dreams and imaginations of many future scientists, geographers, naturalists, explorers and conservationists. “How intensely I long to be a Humboldt,” said 20-something Muir, whose copies of Humboldt’s books, heavily annotated with notes in the margins, are on display at the University of the Pacific in California. Edgar Allan Poe devoted his last important work, Eureka: a prose poem in Humboldt, and Walt Whitman kept one of his volumes on his desk while he composed Blades of grass.

Humboldt’s influence also extended to the political sphere; on his return from Spanish America in 1804, he stopped in Washington to meet US President Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed him “the most important scientist I have ever met”. None other than Simón Bolívar called him the true discoverer of the New World.

In the 19th century, it was still possible for a very intelligent individual to apprehend all scientific knowledge, because each discipline had not yet been broken down into increasingly detailed distinct domains. A contemporary of Humboldt, the German writer, statesman and intellectual Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said of Humboldt: “He knew everything, and knew everything thoroughly.

A detail of Humboldt’s South American tagbücher. He started the 4,000-page diary in German and later switched to French, with margin notes in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Greek and English. Staatsbibliothek Berlin

Of all Humboldt’s contributions to science, perhaps the most significant is his ability to see various disciplines as part of a whole. Describing the disastrous effects of clear-cutting and monoculture on colonial plantations in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to write about the potential for human-induced climate change. “Humboldt was the first to explain the ability of the forest to enrich the atmosphere with humidity and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion”, writes Andrea Wulf in the Atlantic. “When nature is seen as a canvas, its vulnerability also becomes evident. Everything holds together. If a thread is pulled, the whole tapestry could come undone.

Although best known for his travels in South America, Humboldt continued his scientific explorations throughout his life. In 1829, at the age of 60, he set out on a 10,000 mile expedition to the four corners of Russia and returned as agitated as ever. “I have seen a lot, but, to the extent of my demands, very little,” he said on the eve of his 75th birthday. He continued to write and publish until a few weeks before his death in Berlin on May 6, 1859. He was 89 years old.

On the occasion of the centenary of his birth, September 14, 1869, New York Times dedicated the entire front page to celebrating his life, and thousands gathered for the unveiling of his bust in Central Park. Although his notoriety has since faded, his name lives on. More than 100 animals, 300 species of plants and an asteroid are named in his honor, not to mention mountain ranges, universities and 13 cities in North America alone. His legacy lives on in all of us who consider the health of the environment intrinsically linked to our own well-being and survival as a species.

Lyrics by Matt Hart with a September 2022 update by Jeff Moag.

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