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Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections

“In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”

Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843
Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Humboldt's 1806 drawing of the geographic distribution of plants based on mountain height and air temperature
Humboldt’s 1806 drawing of the geographic distribution of plants based on mountain height and air temperature

Given his attentiveness to this interconnectedness across all scales and dimensions of life, it is hardly surprising that Humboldt became the first scientist to admonish against the grave consequences of human-induced climate change after witnessing the environmental devastation of deforestation brought on by the spread of colonial plantations across South America in the 1800s.

Wulf writes:

Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes. Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on “future generations.”

[…]

We are shaped by the past. Nicolaus Copernicus showed us our place in the universe, Isaac Newton explained the laws of nature, Thomas Jefferson gave us some of our concepts of liberty and democracy, and Charles Darwin proved that all species descend from common ancestors. These ideas define our relationship to the world.

Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself. The irony is that Humboldt’s views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them. But there exists a direct line of connection through his ideas, and through the many people whom he inspired. Like a rope, Humboldt’s concept of nature connects us to him.

Wulf pulls on that rope with both hands:

There are many reasons why Humboldt remains fascinating and important: not only was his life colourful and packed with adventure, but his story gives meaning to why we see nature the way we see it today. In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.

Humboldt’s disciples, and their disciples in turn, carried his legacy forward — quietly, subtly and sometimes unintentionally. Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision — although many have never heard of him. Nonetheless, Humboldt is their founding father.

As scientists are trying to understand and predict the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever. His beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and in fostering communication across disciplines, are the pillars of science today. His concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking.

[…]

It feels as if we’ve come full circle. Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.

The Invention of Nature is a riveting read in its entirety, bringing back to life the remarkable man who gave shape to life as we know it. Complement it with the equally enchanting story of Luke Howard — the young amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds and who, like his contemporary Humboldt, bewitched Goethe with his genius — then trace Humboldt’s legacy to our present-day understanding of how everything connects.

BP

Rilke on the Rewards of Reading and What Books Do for Our Inner Lives

“Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times.”

“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith exclaimed in reflecting on her fifty favorite books from a lifetime of reading.

A century earlier, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926), another poet for the ages, wrote with unparalleled lyrical grace about what books do for our inner lives in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — the source of Rilke’s abiding ideas on how to live the questions, what it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves.

rilke

In a 1903 letter to Franz Xaver Kappus, the nineteen-year-old recipient of these timeless words of wisdom, Rilke extols the rewards of reading:

A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

In another letter to his young friend, penned half a century before Susan Sontag’s beautiful meditation on rereading as rebirth, Rilke looks back on one of his favorite books — Danish poet, novelist, and scientist Jens Peter Jacobsen’s 1880 novel Niels Lyhne — and reflects on the universal rewards of rereading:

The oftener one reads it — there seems to be everything in it from life’s very faintest fragrance to the full big taste of its heaviest fruits. There is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, grasped, experienced and recognized in the tremulous after-ring of memory; no experience has been too slight, and the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another and held and borne up by a hundred others. You will experience the great happiness of reading this book for the first time, and will go through its countless surprises as in a new dream. But I can tell you that later too one goes through these books again and again with the same astonishment and that they lose none of the wonderful power and surrender none of the fabulousness with which they overwhelm one at a first reading.

Complement this particular portion of the fabulously rereadable Letters to a Young Poet with Kafka on what books do for the human spirit, Rebecca Solnit on why we read, and Maurice Sendak’s little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

BP

Susan Orlean on the Strange Serendipities That Shape Our Lives

How the roads taken and not taken both lead us to ourselves.

Susan Orlean on the Strange Serendipities That Shape Our Lives

“The exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are,” Adam Phillips wrote in his magnificent meditation on the value of our unlived lives. Every life is a testament to these exemptions, each of us a Venn diagram in which the possible and probable form the slim overlap of our personhood.

I spent the summer before my fourteenth birthday like all academically ambitious Bulgarian kids did — applying to the country’s elite foreign-language high schools, the most popular of which were the English, German, and French gymnasia, and the most competitive and prestigious the American College of Sofia (which was, despite its name, a high school). Each prepared its pupils for higher education in the respective country of the language taught, so that most German high school graduates went to university in Germany, most ACS graduates in America, and so forth.

High school entrance exams in Bulgaria were brutal and kids spent months — sometimes years — preparing, with entire tutoring and testing industries dedicated to the process. All the major language schools had a single general entrance exam — if you got in at all, based on your score relative to the national bell curve, you could enroll into your first, second, or third choice. The only exception was the American College, which had its own special exam, admitting only fifty girls and fifty boys from the whole country.

Having gone to an intensely competitive mathematics middle school, I decided I wanted to go to the German school — in part because it had the strongest curriculum in mathematics, and in part as an act of allegiance to my father, who speaks four languages but is unambiguously a Germanophile.

My middle-school best friend, Yoanna, had her heart set on ACS, with the German school as her second choice — so she had to take both exams and persuaded me to accompany her to ACS one for moral support. She had spent a year and a half preparing for it and I, none — all my preparation had gone into the general exam, which had taken place earlier that month.

I walked out of the ACS exam — a standardized test and an essay — certain that I had flunked it, but unconcerned since I never cared to get in.

A couple of weeks later, the results from the general exam came in — I had placed in the top 1%, as had Yoanna, which meant that I could enroll into the German school as I had hoped and she had her second choice secured.

Later that week, with the results from the ACS exam yet to come, Yoanna and I left for summer camp with our middle school class — a festive two-week farewell at the Black Sea coast, on the other side of the country. But the most thrilling part was that the boy on whom I had the maddest teenage crush all year was also coming — a point of excitement about which I had enthused at length during the many hours Yoanna and I spent on the phone in the weeks leading up to camp.

After an eight-hour train journey, we arrived at the coast, high on vacation elation, post-exam relief, and teenage hormones. This was an era before cell phones, so every afternoon Yoanna and I made a trip to a nearby payphone to call our mothers and check in on the ACS admission results. And every afternoon we were told that the results were not yet in. One day, I couldn’t find Yoanna, so I went to the payphone alone. My mother was out, but her secretary answered and enthusiastically informed me that I had gotten into ACS, placing third out of the entire national applicant pool. Certain that I had done woefully on the exam, I instantly concluded she had misunderstood. Making nothing of it, I decided to return later and speak with my mother directly.

When I got back to the room Yoanna and I shared with eight other girls, I found her sprawled on her cot, sobbing — the kind of violent teenage tears for which there is neither consolation nor comfort. I knew instantly that she had spoken to her mother and found out that she hadn’t gotten in. I spent the rest of the evening trying to console her and we eventually made a pact to go to the German school together — it was her second choice, but the silver lining of continuing our friendship through high school seemed a decent comfort. When I finally reached my mother later, she confirmed what her secretary had said and urged me to consider enrolling — it was, after all, the best school in the country. But I was adamant — I was going to the German school with Yoanna.

The following day, on my way back to the room from our final dinner at camp before our evening departure, I spotted Yoanna behind the camp building, making out with my crush under a street lamp. My heart plummeted to my heels. I said nothing and just stood there in disbelief. Eventually, I went back to the room, packed the two giant suitcases I had stuffed with two weeks’ worth of teenage-girl vanities, and made my way to the train station in silence.

I have no recollection of where Yoanna was during the eight-hour overnight train ride, whether or not we talked, and what was said. All I remember is leaping off the train as soon as it pulled into station in the morning and running toward my mother, dragging the two enormous suitcases with a kind of Herculean fury, yelling: “To the car, to the car! We have twenty minutes!”

My mother was thoroughly confused, but indulged me, grabbing one of the suitcases and rushing to the car as I explained that the enrollment deadline for ACS closed at 9am that morning. It was 8:40am and we had to make it to the other side of town. I said nothing about the Yoanna incident, and my mother didn’t ask why I had changed my mind — she must have simply been relieved that I had decided to attend the school she considered the best choice.

An excellent driver, she navigated rush hour traffic with admirable deftness and questionable legality. We pulled into the ACS parking lot at 8:56am and I sprinted to the guard’s booth to get a sign-in time stamp before the cutoff. I must have looked deranged — disheveled from a redeye train trip, ablaze with a teenager’s rage and a manic determination. But I made the deadline — and so the rest of my life was set into motion.

Had Yoanna not made out with the boy, had the train been delayed by four minutes, had my mother gotten pulled over for running a red light, had any of the innumerable elements in this Rube Goldberg machine of chance-choices been different, I would be living in a different part of the world, reading and writing and thinking in a different language, dreaming different dreams, loving different people. There would be no Brain Pickings.

That strange Rube Goldberg machine is what the inimitable Susan Orlean explores in her beautiful contribution to Airmail: Women of Letters (public library) — an international compendium of pieces from the Australia’s wonderful literary salon Women of Letters, co-curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire.

Susan Orlean (Photograph: Kelly Davidson)
Susan Orlean (Photograph: Kelly Davidson)

Orlean recounts inheriting her grandmother’s Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition — a bulky, outdated volume she was about to discard. But in leafing through it one last time, she came upon a small yet significant astonishment somewhere between Luna Cornea and lustless — a pressed four-leaf clover:

All of its leaves were facing upward, and its long stem was curved into a lazy ‘J’. The clover was still green, or at least greenish, and the leaves were dry and perfectly flat, but hardy and well-attached to the stem. A little stain of clover juice was printed onto the pages it had been pressed between.

The clover became a sort of speculative second-person time machine for Orlean as she came to wonder about the particulars of her grandmother’s life — where she was when she found it, who she was with, why she put it between these two specific pages, whether she looked at it frequently or forgot about it entirely. And out of those questions sprang a newfound intimacy across space and time:

It was the first time I had such a distinct sense of my grandmother. I could imagine her as I’d never actually known her, a sense of her as a young woman with the time and patience to sort through blades of grass, looking for four leaves on a clover, believing in the luck one might bring her. And I believed I was lucky, too, having been so close to losing it, to discarding it, to never knowing what I had in my hands.

But the clover also awakened another, larger intimacy — not with the happenings of a particular life but with the happenstances of which every life is woven. Orlean writes:

That moment, with my inherited dictionary, was the first time I really took stock of the strange serendipity that life is, the near misses and the surprise encounters and the accidents that make up who we are and what we know. My life wasn’t changed dramatically by finding that clover. I didn’t find, say, a lottery ticket, or a priceless diamond she had tucked away for a rainy day. What I found was something both awe-inspiring and slightly disconcerting — the idea that life is a bit of a wild animal that will not be tamed or managed. Or maybe life isn’t really like a wild animal. Maybe it’s a maze, full of turns taken and not taken, and you will never know what would have happened if you chose one rather than the other way to go. You only have what you did choose.

For the first time, I took the measure of luck when I found that clover, because it was such a small incident that could have so easily not happened, and honestly, I was shaken up realizing that the way my life turned out was just a series of tiny, incremental bits of chance and choice. That night, I lay in bed unwinding everything I really am happy about, and saw how many accidents had played into them. What if I hadn’t answered the phone that morning ten years ago and hadn’t ever had that conversation in which a friend told me that she wanted to fix me up with someone, and then I might have never met my husband? What if I hadn’t forgotten to register for the law boards and ended up taking them and going to law school and being a lawyer rather than a writer? What if I hadn’t found that discarded newspaper and hadn’t read the article about an orchid thief and hadn’t decided to write about it? What if I ran that red light? What if the boyfriend who perhaps gave my grandmother that clover had won her over, and she’d married him instead of the man she did marry, and everything, everything, would be different, because my mother wouldn’t have been the girl she was, and I wouldn’t be who I am?

[…]

This is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night.

And then I realize that luck, and fate, happen how they’re going to happen, and that the missed connection and the accidental encounter align in some sort of cosmic balance, and things are what they are. That helps me fall asleep.

Airmail is a terrific read in its entirety, featuring contributions by Tavi Gevinson, Lev Grossman, and Moby. For more of Orlean’s genius, see her advice on writing.

BP

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