published on 28 July 2017 in earth

Alexander von Humboldt, the inventor of nature

The Shakespeare of science, comparable in fame to Napoleon Bonaparte, inspiration of Charles Darwin, the father of modern ecological thinking: Alexander von Humboldt is considered by many to be a lost hero of science, and today, almost 250 years since his birth, his story still has much to teach us.

The last portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Julius Schrader (1859). In the background the Chimborazo (source Wikipedia)

Childhood, family and the changing world
Born in 1769 to an aristocratic Prussian family, Alexander von Humboldt remained fatherless at the tender age of nine, and his education, along with his brother, was entrusted to the best prelates of the time, belonging to the enlightenment school, who aroused in the two brothers the search for truth. It was an era of great transformations: the Industrial Revolution was at its beginnings, machines were changing the way of working, moving and producing; science began to take on an international approach thanks to the first collaborations, first in astronomy and then in mathematics and physics; two revolutions were approaching in two key countries in the Western world, America and France; subsistence farming gave way to specialised crops; new measuring instruments such as telescopes and microscopes were revolutionising the study of nature and great researchers in the field of physics, mathematics and physiology, such as Galvani, Bernoulli and Celsius, to name a few, wrote the history of science.

Studies, first trips and encounters
Since adolescence, Alexander von Humboldt demonstrated his curious and restless soul, consisting of scientific studies on books, but mainly characterised by experiments, expeditions into the wild, mining inspections and studies on electricity, not only on frogs, a trend initiated by the famous physiologist Galvani, but also on his own body. These were the years when the young Alexander expressed himself as the son of enlightenment, dedicating himself to many different disciplines, keeping them separate. An approach he later changed, also thanks to the encounter with prominent personalities of the time, such as Goethe – with whom von Humboldt shared reflections and experimental practices and thanks to whom he discovered the proximity of science, poetry and art – and Kant, thanks to whom he started to acquire a systemic vision of the world, which would characterise his thinking right from his first trip to South America, organised with the aim of finding out how “all the forces of nature are intertwined and interconnected”.

Pico de Teide, Tenerife, one of the volcanoes climbed by Alexander von Humboldt

Expeditions and encounters
The innumerable and adventurous trips of von Humboldt made him, as well as a naturalist, a veritable explorer. In his first intercontinental expedition, along with the botanist Aim̩ Bonpland, he faced stormy crossings, climbed mountains and scoured forests, going through the present Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba and Mexico. In addition to describing plants, animals and rocks, the scientist laid the foundations for the reconstruction of complex phenomena, such as the effects of human activity Рfrom deforestation to the deviation of rivers for irrigation purposes Рon the balance of nature, developing the idea of climate change due to anthropic causes, launching an alarm for future generations and becoming the father of the environmental movement.
Upon returning from this expedition, von Humboldt met US President Thomas Jefferson, who defined him “the man with the most scientific knowledge of his time”. On this occasion, the naturalist shared all the information gathered on his journeys, demonstrating to be, besides a great scientist, also a supporter of the free circulation of knowledge, because – he affirmed – science transcends individual and national interests.
In just a few years, Humboldt became famous for his explorations and studies. Celebrated throughout Europe, he became the subject of the attention of the sovereigns of the time, starting with the King of Prussia, Frederic William III, who offered him a salary with no special obligations, and later by the Tsar of Russian, Nicholas I, who financed a very important journey for him through the Urals and Siberia to the border with China, to gather information about the country’s mineral resources.
As a profound scholar of the world in its complexity, of which man is part, von Humboldt could not help but having something to say about the relationship between society and nature and the exploitation of resources by the colonists. Albeit with his contradictions, Alexander did not hide his convictions against slavery and colonialism and on many occasions shared his sympathies for the French and American revolutions and for the liberation of Venezuela and Colombia from Spanish domination and for the laws on the protection of the forests on the part of Simon Bolivar (one of the many encounters of von Humboldt, who would subsequently criticise the Liberador for his authoritarian deviation).

Fame and recognition
From the description of the currents to that of the magnetic equator, from the identification of animal and plant species to the intuition of the existence of climatic zones by altitude and latitude, from the foundations for evolutionary theory to those of modern geology, von Humboldt used every moment and every penny to observe, narrate and understand nature, also experimenting with scientific outreach through detailed illustrated publications.
He inspired great scientists, politicians and artists of his time and of the years to come, from Darwin to Haeckel (father of ecology), from Poe to Verne, but one of his greatest merits is to have made science popular and accessible, to have helped us to overcome the widespread tendency to separate science from art. Because according to the explorer and naturalist of Prussian origin – who in his travels had always accompanied careful observation of phenomena and species with a strong emotional engagement – nature can be understood only by using the imagination.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that in the centenary of his birth, von Humboldt was celebrated by 80,000 people in Berlin and 25,000 in Central Park, New York. He was a veritable star, whose thinking has marked our culture for ever and whose story still has much to teach us.

The Humboldt penguin, so called because it swims in the current of the same name that flows from south to north off the coasts of Chile and Peru, described by Alexander von Humboldt in his work Cosmos.

By Anna Pellizzone

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