SPOILER ALERT!

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (PROGRESS UPDATE)

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

PART 4:  INFLUENCE: SPREADING IDEAS

 

In Part 4, Humboldt is recalled to Berlin, a city he considers an intellectual backwater, and tied up with court duties.

 

"The man who had written thirty years previously that 'court life robs even the most intellectual o their genius and freedom', now found himself bound to royal routine."

 

Humboldt believed that education was the foundation of a free and happy society (which the establishment considered a dangerous thought), and tried to use his court position to support scientists, explorers and artists.  While in Berlin, he also gave many lectures free of charge, thus enabling anyone - rich, poor, men and women - to attend his lectures on the natural world.  He tried to revolutionize the sciences by organising a conference where attending scientists were expected to talk to each other and not at each other.

 

Humboldt eventually managed to organise an all-expenses paid trip to Russia.  Although this expedition was supposed to be for the "advancement of science", the tsar was more interested in the advancement of commerce so Humboldt was obliged to investigate mines along their route.  Humboldt, being something of an eccentric and over active rebel, decided to take an unauthorised detour to see the Altai Mountains where Russia, China and Mongolia met as the counterpart of his observations in the Andes, and then to the Caspian Sea.  Even an anthrax epidemic wouldn't stop him.  Despite being short on money, Humboldt returned a third of his expense money to be used to finance another explorer.  Supporting other scientists, explorers and artists is something that we see Humboldt do fairly often.

  

 

 

Part 3 also includes an interesting chapter on Charles Darwin and how Humboldt's books and understanding of nature influenced Darwin's studies and his eventual development of the theory of evolution. 

 

"Darwin was standing on Humboldt's shoulders."

 

A chapter is dedicated to Humboldt's endeavours in writing Cosmos:  A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe.   This book (in five volumes) would take the rest of Humboldt's life to write. 

 

"Humboldt wanted to write a book that would bring together everything I the heavens and on earth, ranging from distant nebulae to the geography of mosses, and from landscape painting to the migration of the human races and poetry."

 

 

Wulf manages to convey how excited and alive Humboldt felt while on his Siberian expedition, and how much he enjoyed these expeditions.   I enjoyed the exploration parts of the book more than the philosophical musings and the history lessons.