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"The Age of Humboldt"

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 16, 2009 09:15 AM

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Alexander von Humboldt

Much is being made of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species" (fair enough!), but this year also marks the sesquicentennial of the death of the German scientist who inspired Darwin's journey on the Beagle: Alexander von Humboldt.

Who? The Chicago Blog (i.e., the blog of the University of Chicago Press) notes that every literate Amerian used to know his name, and, what's more, could probably hold forth about his explorations and adventures. Emerson referred to his own era as "the age of Humboldt," and Humboldt, for his part, called himself "half an American." The Chicago press is about to publish two books that celebrate him: "The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America," by Laura Dassow Walls, an English professor at the University of South Carolina, and a new edition of Humboldt's "Essay on the Geography of Plants," edited by Stephen T. Jackson, a botanist at the University of Wyoming.

Walls and Jackson recently co-wrote an essay about the neglected thinker, in which they sketched the highlights of the five-year voyage to the Americas that made his reputation:

from 1799 to 1804 he explored the Orinoco and upper Amazon Rivers, trekked the Andean highlands, climbed Chimborazo to the highest elevation ever reached, interviewed the descendants of the Inca, toured the mines and ruins of central Mexico, studied the plantation economy of Cuba. He and his companion, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, collected thousands of botanical, zoological, and geological specimens and made tens of thousands of measurements of temperature, humidity, and air pressure.

Back in Paris, he spent years and much of his fortune analyzing and publishing data from his trip. "Above all," write Jackson and Walls, "Humboldt invented a way of seeing that embraced all of physical nature, organic life, and human culture and history," a perspective that helped to shape many of the modern environmental sciences.

He revived the Greek word cosmos to describe the oneness of the natural world and human understanding of it. And, on a more practical level, a number of Humboldt's innovations in the display of data, such as isotherms--the use of bands of color on a map to indicate temperature--are still in use today. You may have perused one this morning.

A modern example of an isotherm
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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