You’ve probably heard of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), since he has more places named after him than any other person, not to mention the Humboldt Current, Histiotus humboldti, Spheniscus humboldti, and many other plants and animals. What exactly did he do? Plenty—though not as much as he wanted to. Known as a natural scientist—in this case meaning also a geologist, botanist, biologist—Humboldt held a day job as Chamberlain for the Prussian emperor, and was a life-long abolitionist. His friends included Goethe and Bolívar; his multi-volume works presented facts and data in graceful, lyrical prose and were bestsellers throughout Europe. In order to tell his story, Andrea Wulf, as she did in The Brother Gardeners, combines biography, history, economics, and science, but it’s for his work on The Invention of Nature (Knopf, $30) that she most admires him. Humboldt’s insight, Wulf shows, was to see nature not as discrete parts, but as one integrated network. His stunning Naturgemälde, drawing on his five-year exploration of Latin America, not only anticipated ecosystems, evolution, plate tectonics, and climate change, it was revolutionary in its graphic display of information; you can see it reproduced here, along with many of Humboldt’s own drawings.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf
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Published: Knopf - September 15th, 2015
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Published: Vintage - October 4th, 2016