My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a remarkable biography about the most famous person you’ve never heard of. More things are named after Alexander von Humboldt than anyone else who’s ever lived, and yet before I read this book his name meant nothing to me.
Not so now! Through a staggering story, told in dramatic and fastidious detail by Andrea Wulf, I am left with no choice but to celebrate von Humboldt’s importance to science on a par with legendary greats like Newton or Einstein.
The reason this book is so compelling is that Wulf narrates von Humboldt’s life in its broader intellectual and political context. When he makes his first expedition to South America, he does so in the context of impending independence for a colonised continent. His relationship with Thomas Jefferson takes place in the context of a liberal wave sweeping Europe, tussling with the New World over slavery and monarchy and the meaning of political liberty. This type of story is unusual for a Science book, but then Alexander von Humboldt was no usual scientist. His naturalist vision was defined by its holistic perspective: science and politics, like birds and the weather, cannot be understood outside of a coherent, though complex, whole.
The accounts of von Humboldt’s dramatic expeditions, the obsession of his data collection, and the originality of his ideas, paint a vivid portrait of a man captivated by his work. But the chapters in the later part of the book demonstrate the extent to which others were obsessed with it as well. Darwin had copies of von Humboldt’s books with him on The Beagle, worn out with the copious notes made on his hero’s ideas. Ernst Haeckel, the father of modern Ecology, was a von Humboldt devotee. America’s national parks owe themselves to the legacy of von Humboldt. We could go on.
At a time where ecological thinking is more important than ever, this book is a vital history on a crucial topic. But what caught me off-guard was Wulf’s almost throw-away observation about why von Humboldt is so unknown to the Anglophone world, despite being unquestionably the father of the modern natural sciences. One reason, simply, is that he was German. And after 1914 German scholarly writings were forcefully excluded from the Anglo academy. It’s a sobering observation, especially in the context of a story about a man whose core ideal was holistic knowledge. The other reason is that his vision was incompatible with the 20th-century world in which academic disciplines were increasingly atomised. Now that trend is reversing, I’m really grateful for discovering ‘The Lost Hero of Science’. The lessons of the history are both sobering and exciting for the future.
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This review is imported from Goodreads.