Sunday, 17 January 2016

Alexander's Amazing Adventures

 “The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science”

By Andrea Wulf. Published by John Murray, 2015

 Alexander van Humboldt, the subject of Andrea Wulf’s Costa Book Award winning biography, lived a remarkable & singular life.  Born into privilege in aristocratic Prussia in 1769, outstanding academically & from a young age a fixture in Berlin’s intellectual circles, the young Humboldt did not lack ambition:

“According to family lore, the Prussian King, Frederick the Great, asked the boy if he planned to conquer the world like his namesake, Alexander the Great. Young Humboldt’s answer was: “Yes, Sir, but with my head.”

Nevertheless, Humboldt was constrained by family obligations to a career as a civil servant in the Prussian Ministry of Mines until his mother’s death freed him from any such ties.  Along with a significant inheritance, this emancipation from expectation provided Humboldt with the opportunity to pursue his dreams: travel, exploration, scientific enquiry & investigations into the “Gordian knot of the processes of life.”

Humboldt’s journey to South America, and subsequent writings, became the foundation stone of his career & of this book.  Both a picturesque adventure tale & an extraordinary account of scientific discovery, Wulf’s retelling of the relationships, travails & encounters during the three years the Prussian spent in South America resound with awe & wonder for the natural world.  It is during this journey that Humboldt develops his concept of “Naturgemalde – an untranslatable term that can mean a ‘painting of nature’ but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.” This interconnectedness, & the importance of systems, networks and interrelationships to the “unity in variety” in nature mirror Humboldt’s own curiosity & desire for understanding beyond specialisms & academic frameworks.  “If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist or a zoologist.  He required information about everything and from everywhere.” Fittingly, to convey this approach Humboldt dispensed with tradition & produced a drawing, at first a sketch & later published as a three foot by two foot colour illustration with supporting information, pioneering the development of what we now know as infographics.  “Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everyone.”

The fame & adoration which followed Humboldt’s return to Europe & the publication of his accounts of scientific discovery are reflected in the fact that more things – rivers, mountains, ocean currents, cities, penguins – are named after him than anyone else. Later works, especially the five volume Cosmos, sold in enormous quantities & confirmed him as a pre-eminent thinker of the age.  Interestingly, Wulf devotes several later chapters of her book to the influence & continuation of Humboldt’s ideas in the careers of subsequent acolytes whose current fame exceeds that of their hero; including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, & John Muir.  In doing so, the author re-establishes Humboldt’s importance having been relegated (at least in the English-speaking world) to the margins of history.

The Invention of Nature is a biography on a grand canvas, reflecting the multifaceted career & interests of its subject.  Scientist, adventurer, author, data visualisation pioneer & mentor for subsequent scientists & writers amongst many other things, Humboldt was no mere cataloguer of nature.  He “was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them”, & in reconnecting her subject & his works into the grand sweep of the Enlightenment, Andrea Wulf’s vital book more than succeeds in her quest “to rediscover Humboldt, and to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon”; it reclaims the importance of her subject’s work & its legacy far beyond the confines of the history of science.