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Humboldt Biographer Andrea Wulf on "The Invention Of Nature"


Alexander Von Humboldt's name has been bestowed upon 18 places, 14 geographical features, 4 animals, 7 plants, 4 schools and 2 astronomical features. In fact, his name is on more plants and animals than any other scientist's.

So how did such a famed person slip out of history?
Born in 1769, Alexander Von Humboldt was one of the most famous people in the western world, writes biographer Andrea Wulf. "It's a bit of a scary thing. Do you write a book about someone nobody has ever heard about ... or is this a great opportunity to reintroduce someone to a country where he used to be so unbelievably famous?", she  told KHSU.

Humboldt's friends, who included Simón Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson point to his work as hugely influential. "There were 25,000 people who marched through Manhattan in his honor ... the whole of America was in love with this man," Wulf said. "And today, hardly anybody has ever heard about him."

Alexander Von Humboldt at age 39, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch

Eschewing a comfy life in Berlin, Humboldt sought knowledge and adventure wherever he could find it. As a mountaineer and scientist, he climbed higher than any human at the time. He paddled the rivers of South America not as a conqueror, but as an observer.

 Wulf, author of "The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New Word", will give a lecture on Alexander Von Humboldt at Humboldt State on October 24th.

From the New York Times' review of "The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World:

Alexander von Humboldt was the pre-eminent scientist of his time. Contemporaries spoke of him as second in fame only to Napoleon. All over the Americas and the English-speaking world, towns and rivers are still named after him, along with mountain ranges, bays, waterfalls, 300 plants and more than 100 animals. There is a Humboldt glacier, a Humboldt asteroid, a Humboldt hog-nosed skunk. Off the coast of Peru and Chile, the giant Humboldt squid swims in the Humboldt Current, and even on the moon there is an area called Mare Humboldtianu. Darwin called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.” Yet today, outside Latin America and Humboldt’s native Germany, his name has receded into near oblivion. His insights have become so ingested by modern science that they may no longer seem astonishing. As Andrea Wulf remarks in her arresting “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World,” “it is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

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