Thursday 13 October 2016

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt The Lost Hero of Science has been on my radar ever since it first came out in 2015.

But it was our forthcoming trip to Cuba that brought it front and centre. There is a national park near Baracoa, in eastern Cuba that is named after Humboldt that we hope to visit. I wanted to know what on earth Humboldt was doing in Cuba.

It turned out that Humboldt was an extraordinary scientific adventurer who had a profound and lasting effect on the way we view the world, nature and the place of humans to this day.

In her prologue, Wulf mentioned that
the irony is that Humboldt's views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them.

Her book set out to reveal the forgotten man, follow the web of his influence as well as remind us of all that he achieved during his lifetime.

The chapters that detailed his influence on men like Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Ernst Haeckle, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir felt like an intrusion at first.
I didn't feel that we needed these bio's within a bio, but as each one wore on, I found myself caught up in what these men also achieved and how far-reaching Humboldt's influence actually was.

Below are some of the basic facts about Humboldt's life, with a few of his observations and theories that I gleaned from this very accessible, easy to read and enjoyable homage.
  • Born in the same year as Napoleon
  • Older brother, Wilhelm
  • Father died when he was nine.
  • 'formal, cold and emotionally distant' mother (pg 13)
  • privileged but unhappy childhood.

  • invented isotherms.
  • 'He came up with the idea of vegetation and climate zones that snake across the globe'. (pg5)
  • more place names are named after him than anyone else.
  • in 1869, huge world wide public celebrations occurred in honour of his centenary birthday.
  • First job was as a mining inspector. He became interested in the working conditions of the miners and invented a breathing mask and a lamp that would work in the 'deepest oxygen-poor shafts'. (pg 21)
  • 'Comparison became Humboldt's primary means of understanding nature.' (pg 32)
  • Good friends with Goethe - 'That something of Humboldt was in Goethe's Faust - or something of Faust in Humboldt - was obvious to many.' (pg 37)

  • June 1799 sailed to South America on board Pizarro, a Spanish frigate, with Aime Bonpland, a French scientist as his companion.
  • Slave market at Cumana made 'Humboldt a life-long abolitionist'. (pg 53)
  • Nov 1799 experienced first earthquake.
  • (pg 54) 'memories and emotional responses...would always form a part of man's experience and understanding of nature.'
  • 7th Feb 1800 set off to explore the Orinoco.
  • Travelled via Lake Valencia where locals told him that the lake was rapidly disappearing 'he concluded that the clearing of the surrounding forests, as well as the diversion of water for irrigation, had caused the falling water level.' (pg 57) 
  • 'The action of humankind across the globe, he warned, could affect future generations.' (pg 58)
  • 'Humboldt did not regard the indigenous people as barbaric....In fact, he talked about the 'barbarism of civilised man' when he saw how the local people were treated by colonists and missionaries.' (pg 71)

  • Dec 1800 arrived in Havana, Cuba.
  • March 1801 sailed to Cartagena. Planned to 'cross, climb and investigate the Andes' as they trekked towards Lima.
  • Climbed Chimborazo, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world.
  • 'He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.' (pg2)
  • Produced his first sketch of the Naturgemalde - a visual representation of the different zones of plants in relation to climate, location, altitude.
  • discovered the magnetic equator.

  • Spent 1803 in Mexico.
  • March 1804 sailed to the US via Cuba.
  • 'Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society'.  'All problems in the colonies, he was certain, were the result of the 'imprudent activities of the Europeans.' (pg 150)

  • August 1804 arrived back in Paris.
  • April 1805 Rome.
  • November 1805 Berlin.
  • Wrote the Essays on the Geography of Plants - first ecology book - discussed global patterns, continental shift.
  • Published Views of Nature - 'poetic vignettes' about the web of life (pg 132)
  • Nov 1807 returned to Paris.
  • Published his four volume Political Essays on the Kingdom of New Spain between 1808-1811.

  • 1829 travelled to Russia and the Siberian steppes, 'following the border that separated Russia from China' (pg 210).
  • Created the 'Magnetic Crusade' to measure magnetic variations across the globe. In three years his magnetic stations collected nearly two million observations.

  • In 1834 he started work on Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (published in 1845).
  • 'As science moved away from nature into laboratories and universities, separating itself off into distinct disciplines, Humboldt created a work that brought together all that professional science was trying to keep apart.' (pg 235)
  • Second volume published in 1847. 
  • Third in 1850.
  • 'Humboldt had become the most famous scientist of his age, not just in Europe but across the world.' (pg 273)

  • Fourth volume of Cosmos published in 1856.
  • Fifth in 1859.
  • Two days after he sent the manuscript to the publishers, he collapsed. He died two weeks later at age 89.

  • Humboldt's ideas 'seeped into the poems of Walt Whitman and the novels of Jules Verne.' (pg 282) 
  • Also Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church.

Humboldt was friends with, sponsored or mentored almost every well-known scientist that was alive during his lifetime. He was courted by presidents, royal families and artists. He wrote thousands of letter every year and read thousands more.

Wulf's biography has been thoughtfully arranged, with a few gorgeous coloured plates, extensive notes (at the back of the book where they don't clutter up the narrative) and an inspiring bibliography.

One of Humboldt's strengths was his ability to make science and the wonder of nature accessible to everyone. Wulf has replicated this strength in her award winning biography.

Along with 'Humboldt's disciples, and their disciples in turn, (Wulf has) carried his legacy forward.' (pg 336)

Winner of the 2015 Costa Biography award and Winner of the 2016 Royal Society Science Book Prize.


  1. I bought this book after reading Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World - a fictionalized account of Humboldt and Gauss and how their lives intersect. You might be interested in that one, too. I have't read this one yet, but I'm glad to see you liked it!
    Love this: "the irony is that Humboldt's views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them."

    1. I also spotted Wulf's backlist when I was on goodreads earlier. She has one called Chasing Venus which sounds great as well as a couple about gardening (ie botany).

  2. Anonymous14/10/16

    Haha, I did exactly the same thing as Naomi and was about to recommend Measuring the World to you as well. I haven't yet gotten past the introduction, but I was fascinated by it. I am very happy to see Wulf's book on quite a few must-read NF lists.

    1. Anonymous14/10/16

      Past the introduction of The Invention of Nature, I meant. I did read all of Measuring the World...

  3. I read about him in a science book I was using with my dd and came across this blog:
    Fascinating man.

    1. Thanks for the link Carol - I suspect there will be even more Humboldt related blogs if one goes searching - his travels through Europe, South America and Russia were epic and have been inspiring enthusiasts following in his footsteps ever since he published his first book.

  4. This sounds so fantastic - I have been meaning to read Measuring the World as well. I love learning about science through narratives...the human stories behind great scientific discoveries and movements are often so fascinating.

  5. Ooh, this sounds fascinating! All the fun facts you shared, plus the beautiful cover, make me interested in picking it up :)

  6. This does sound like something I would enjoy! He sounds like a fascinating man. Thanks for the recommendation!


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.