As if for the First Time

James Sheehan

  • The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf
    John Murray, 473 pp, £25.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 84854 898 5

‘He was the greatest man since the Deluge.’ This assessment of Alexander von Humboldt by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, which Andrea Wulf quotes in her fine new biography, may be a slight exaggeration, but it reflects Humboldt’s extraordinary reputation among his contemporaries. On the centennial of his birth, 14 September 1869, elaborate celebrations were held all over the world; the front page of the New York Times was devoted to his achievements under a banner headline that said simply: HUMBOLDT. Humboldt, the era’s greatest natural scientist, was one of the first beneficiaries of the globalisation of celebrity.

He was born in 1769. His father, from a family of Prussian army officers and courtiers, died when he was nine, leaving Alexander and his elder brother, Wilhelm, in the care of their intensely ambitious but emotionally chilly mother, who devoted her ample resources to preparing her sons to become important men. Temperamentally quite different, both boys were gifted and industrious, willing and able to learn from the distinguished scholars hired to tutor them. In part to escape their joyless life at home, the brothers became precocious participants in the world of the enlightened elite, first in Berlin, then elsewhere in Europe. By the time they were in their early twenties they seemed to know everyone worth knowing, including the two figures at the pinnacle of German culture, Schiller and Goethe.

Alexander was born in the same year as Napoleon and the duke of Wellington – but his life wasn’t much affected by the French Revolution. In 1789 he was busy studying basaltic deposits in the Rhineland, the subject of his first book. Between 1792 and 1796, as the French declared war on Europe, killed their king and endured the Terror, Humboldt was employed as an inspector in the Prussian Ministry of Mines, a task to which he devoted considerable energy, though he also made occasional excursions to Weimar and Jena, where he had long discussions with Goethe about the aesthetic and scientific issues that absorbed them both. In 1796 his mother died, which removed any need to prolong his career in the civil service. Without delay, he resigned, travelled for a year and then made his way to Paris, not to observe the conclusion of the revolutionary drama but to join what was still Europe’s most active scientific community. Although he didn’t ignore political developments, for Alexander – unlike his brother – politics was never a primary concern: what he really wanted to do was find a way to explore the world of nature in all its variety. After a series of false starts, in June 1799 he finally set sail for America, with a letter of introduction from the Spanish king, an assortment of the best scientific instruments money could buy, and a deep ambition to see things no European had seen before.

To see everything in the world of nature – from the most distant stars to subterranean moulds hidden in the darkness of mineshafts – would remain Humboldt’s greatest aspiration. Especially as a young man, he had carried out a number of experiments (including some truly bizarre efforts to determine the effects of electricity on his own body), but from the time of his first scientific explorations along the Rhine in 1789 his scientific achievements were based on what he could observe, measure and directly experience. His most popular book – and his own favourite – was entitled Views of Nature, and tries to teach the reader how to look at the natural world. In Eduard Hildebrandt’s portrait of the elderly Humboldt in his library, only one scientific instrument is shown: a telescope, framed by a doorway at the very centre of the picture. ‘The eye,’ he wrote in 1845, ‘is the organ of our Weltanschauung’: the organ with which we both observe and shape our interpretation of the world.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in