Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Humboldt’s Importance

Alexander von Humboldt was the most influential man of his age.  His contributions helped unify our understanding of nature and how human alterations could lead to dangerous changes.  Heads of government, scientists, engineers, artists, and authors were inspired by and consulted with him on a range of topics. Around the world, there are more cities, parks, mountains, and rivers named for Humboldt than anyone else that ever lived.

 Dr. Ulloa Ulloa (front, left) and field assistants at the Humboldt statue on Chimborazo in 2009.

Dr. Ulloa Ulloa (front, left) and field assistants at the Humboldt statue on Chimborazo in 2009.

Humboldt’s strengths were his curiosity, his tireless desire to record his experiences, his ability to see connections, and his ability to write about objective facts with lyrical prose.  He described nature as a web of life, noting and mapping the plant and animal changes with elevation on Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador a century before C. Hart Merriam mapped life zones in central Arizona.  He invented isotherms, the lines on maps connecting areas of equal temperatures, and he warned that human destruction of nature was having widespread consequences.  He described the drop in stream flow, lake level, and general climate change resulting from cutting forests and diverting streams for monoculture farming.  Humboldt influenced and inspired Goethe, Darwin, Hooker, Bolivar, Thoreau, Muir, and many more.  Without Humboldt’s books, Darwin might never have gone to sea, South America might have remained a slave-holding Spanish colony for another century, and nature conservation might have lagged even farther behind human alteration of the land.

Humboldt1805-chimborazo-live zones

Humboldt’s zonal flora and fauna map of Chimborazo.

I am delighted to report that my grandson born in October, 2014 bears the name Alexander.  Alex’s birthplace is just 15 miles west of my home in Humboldt, AZ.

The essay introduced below provides links to some the books by and about Humboldt.  The one by Andrea Wulf is one of my all-time favorite biographical works.

Humboldt and Bonpland’s Essai sur la géographie des plantes and its significance

By: Randy Smith, Image Technician | Metadata Librarian. Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden

“Over 210 years after Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s work titled Essai sur la géographie des plantes was published, climate science, book conservation, and botanical research have converged around this 1805 work. This book was digitized and made available in 2008 by the Missouri Botanical Garden for the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Modern science meets historic data

“In 2015, scientists published a paper detailing their findings as they retraced the path that Humboldt and Bonpland took on their ascent up the dormant volcano, Chimborazo, in Ecuador. The paper, “Strong upslope shifts in Chimborazo’s vegetation over two centuries since Humboldt,” utilized the data and map contained in Essai sur la géographie des plantes and presented modern data from the same locations as detailed in Essai to reveal the effects of climate change on the volcano.

“As Stephen T. Jackson writes in the 2009 book, Essay on the geography of plants, the significance of Humboldt and Bonpland’s work describing their ascent up Chimborazo lies in the detailed data they collected at various elevations. Jackson and historian Andrea Wulf have noted that while most people have forgotten Humboldt, his significance in unifying early scientific disciplines into an inter-connected web of life cannot be understated. Measurements taken on Chimborazo include light intensity, temperature, barometric pressure, and gravitational force. Descriptions of the flora and fauna at various levels of Chimborazo were described and illustrated on the map contained with Essai sur la géographie des plantes.”  Continue reading.

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