Have you ever wondered what an asteroid, a glacier and a penguin have in common? Their similarity is not in any shared geography or biology, but instead in their namesake.
The Humboldt asteroid, the Humboldt glacier and the Humboldt penguin were all named in honor of one man: the 19th century German explorer and polymath Alexander Von Humboldt. Besides the asteroid and glacier, there are around 300 plants and over 100 animals in North America named for Humboldt, whom Charles Darwin called “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.” Yet, today, Alexander Von Humboldt has been all but forgotten outside of Germany and parts of Latin America. Andrea Wolf’s 2015 biography, “The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World,” is compelling because it fills this gap in our historical memory with Humboldt’s scientific achievements and the vivid details of his life.
The book begins with Humboldt’s aristocratic childhood in Berlin and chronicles his adventures as a young adult through the magical, but dangerous, terrain of South America. Wolf retraces Humboldt’s steps on a 1,300 mile trek across the snow-swept northern Andes and connects his geological and biological discoveries to our modern understanding of nature. Wolf highlights Humboldt’s relationship with iconic figures, such as Thomas Jefferson and Simón Bolívar, while also explaining Humboldt’s lasting influence on luminaries like Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe and Thoreau. She does all of this in incisive language, drawing upon deep research that includes numerous copies of paintings, sketches and prints of Humboldt’s life and travels.
Reading about the life of Alexander von Humboldt in “The Invention of Nature” will rescue you from the quarantine doldrums and refresh your sense of adventure, while teaching you about a remarkable scientist who deserves to be remembered.