Monday, December 6, 2021

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf (author), David Drummond (narrator)

Highbridge Audio, October 2015

This is a fascinating biography of an impressive scientist, whom I don't believe I ever heard of before.

Alexander von Humboldt was the second son of an aristocratic Prussian family, who used his inheritance to pursue a career as, essentially, the first real naturalist. At 27, he went on an expedition to South America, with one other scientist and a couple of guides. In the course of his expedition he invented the concept of isotherms, which made global study of climate possible. He collected specimens, climbed mountains, and took detailed notes on plant and animal life, climate, and the effects of wholesale clearing of trees and other inconvenient plants and animals. Humboldt's journey, and his letters reporting home on it, were widely covered in the newspapers, worldwide, not just in his native Prussia. He returned home, and continued to be both a celebrity and a working scientist--and in many was perhaps the first science popularizer. 

We have on the one hand the story of Humboldt developing the evidence and concepts that frame much of our understanding of environmental science, and the natural world as a unified whole in which all the parts are interacting, and on the other hand the more frustrating story of the partial and incomplete success of Humboldt and the others he inspired, in persuading governments and industries that too ruthless an approach to environmental exploitation, however profitable in the short run, could produce devastating, human-caused, climate change.

Yeah, the idea of human-caused climate change isn't a product of the 21st century or even the 20th, and Humboldt and others gathered a great deal of evidence of local and regional climate change caused by destructive human practices.

Humboldt returned to Prussia, and went to Paris, where he lived for years, and gave lectures and wrote books presenting his findings not just to other scientists but to the general public.  He tried for years to get British permission to visit India, without success. At the age of 59, he got permission to visit Siberia, and made more important discoveries. The discovery that delighted the Czar most was that there were diamonds to be found in the same areas where Russia was already mining gold and platinum, though Humboldt was more pleased by the ability to bring to some completion his worldwide study of climate and environment, which interested the Czar not at all.

His books were bestsellers, worldwide, and among the people whose own subsequent work was greatly influenced by Humboldt were Charles Darwin, Charles Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haekel, John Muir, and Charles Lyell. Humboldt was also a passionate abolitionist, and an advocate of democracy--something that could be a very touchy subject both in Prussia, and in Napoleon's France.

There is so much more here, well worth reading. A really excellent book.

I bought this audiobook.

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