Science & People

Alexander von Humboldt | Biography, achievements, and quotes

Although it is more or less known today, German Alexander von Humboldt is one of the most important scientists of the modern age in every respect. Humboldt made several expeditions in America between 1799-1804, inspired young Charles Darwin to see the famous tropical belt with his own eyes, and again provided tools to answer such questions. Throughout the 19th century, the name Humboldt was a name that is mentioned every day, the cornerstone of the science of heroism and humanity. He gained fame as a romantic adventurer who did rafting in the Orinoco, climbed Chimborazo in Ecuador (which he thought was the world’s highest mountain), escaped from the jaguars, and took the electric eel in his hand.

Who is Alexander von Humboldt?

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland
Humboldt and his fellow Aime Bonpland traveled frequently and slowly, setting up a series of field stations while exploring the local area.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said for him “a whole French Academy, traveled in his shoes.” Indeed, Humboldt has contributed to many disciplines, from botany to zoology and geology, from physiology to geophysics, from geography to anthropology and political economy. He became a catalyst for international science and the global weather stations he has set up sparked the climate change research. In his bestseller books, Humboldt used his adventures to teach about radical new concepts in science and to condemn slavery and colonialism. He wrote that all people are one species, “All [races of men] are in like degree designed for freedom” (Humboldt 358). However, his name never linked to a specific groundbreaking discovery. Newton had gravity, Darwin’s evolution, Einstein’s relativity. What about Humboldt’s?

The answer is ecology. Although this word was derived after he died, it is Humboldt who found the field of plant ecology. His writings highlighted the interrelatedness of all elements in nature, including people in the modern, global world. Born in Berlin in the age of Voltaire in 1769, Humboldt died in 1859 while Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was preparing to be published. He grew up on his family estate in Tegel with his brother Wilhelm (to be a famous philosopher and linguist), both of who were the members of the exciting intellectual community shaped around Kant, Goethe, and Schiller.

During this time, those who had gone on a scientific expedition would return from their voyages with stories of exotic people, strange but beautiful outdoor pictures, samples of ships and animal and plant fossils, minerals, and all kinds of interesting primitive works of art. European science was unfamiliar to all. Young Humboldt was ignited with the desire to explore the world. His hunger for knowledge led him to go to a number of universities–Frankfurt, Göttingen, Hamburg, Freiberg–to learn botany, history, politics, geology, chemistry, physiology, and linguistics. When the family wealth was inherited to him, he found the freedom to realize his dream of dedication to science; Soon he set out for South America with his fellow botanist Aime Bonpland.

The effort to understand the world

isothermal maps based on Humboldt's
Like this example from 1823, isothermal maps based on Humboldt’s work turned abstract data into striking visual images.

Alexander von Humboldt thought that science needed a new way to understand the interrelation of everything; it should have turned more to the object, not to the collections. How was the Earth like this with the plants that breathe carbon dioxide and the animals that breathe oxygen or the continents in the middle of the oceans where the global currents between the polar ice sheets continuously move? Was electricity the secret of life? (The electric eel was allowed him to find the answer). Why rocks and minerals are the same all over the world, but plants, animals, and humans are different everywhere? People all over the world grow potatoes, corn, peaches, cherries, wheat, olives, grapes, but nowhere would the wild type of these plants be found? So where had they come from?

So where did people come from? Why are our looks, traditions, and languages ​​so different from each other? Are all languages ​​connected? Are all people related? Are we shaped by our environment–and are we shaping our environment? Why did Christopher Columbus sail to the West? What is left of the American civilization destroyed by the Europeans? How did Inca gold and Mexican silver change the world economy? What causes tropical diseases, can they be cured? Will Venezuela and Mexico rise and establish independent republics like the United States?

Such questions and hundreds of them were the texture of Humboldt’s dozens of books, ranging from scientific monographs to popular articles, all of which have reshaped our understanding of the planet and encouraged the creation of dozens of new specializations in science. Although he has never taught at the university, he has mentored many young scientists, explorers, and artists. One of them, Louis Agassiz, made the following observation: “Every school-boy is familiar with his methods now, but he does not know that Humboldt is his teacher.” His mind is hidden from us, “by the very abundance and productivity it causes.”

Physics of the world

Essay on the Geography of Plants by Alexander von Humboldt
From Humboldt’s 1807, Essay on The Geography of Plants, this famous folding painting lays the foundations of ecology in a single page.

Humboldt laid down the foundations of a new science branch he named “General Physics of the Earth” what is now called as “Earth Systems Science”. This branch is still rapidly growing by blending in the ecology and earth sciences, atmospheric and climate sciences, geology and ocean sciences. Humboldt’s General Physics of the Earth observe how our Earth functions, and how human activities change this functioning. The beginning of the development of this discipline can be seen in two of Humboldt’s most important works. The first is at the beginning of his career, and the second is at the end. After studying the tropical belt of the American continent for five years, Humboldt settled in Paris, then the center of earth science, and started publishing his findings.

Essay on the Geography of Plants, 1807, is his first volume of work (thirty volumes in total), and it is a sketch in which his most important observations are synthesized. In the illustration shown above, there are very crowded data columns on both sides of the Chimborazo rising in the middle. Along the slope of the mountain, plants specific to the region rise from generation to generation: At the equator there are tropical plants, in the temperate zone there are pine and oak, the alpine plants lay higher, and rocks, and polar ice at the summit. Each generation represents a climate zone, emphasizing how the height of the mountain parallels global spheres. In each generation, plants are typical “communities”; animal life is linked with physical properties such as height, rainfall, light intensity, temperature, soil type, and humidity.

Each community of wild plants has its own distinctive visual, physiognomy. As the people spread through the planet with migrations, nature became part of the human culture, the mind, and the heart of each individual. The person who studies Humboldt’s vast picture of the Earth joins that picture, actively struggles to connect the elements, like many scientists whose contributions made this picture possible.

Thus, according to Alexander von Humboldt, through science and imagination, the reader can take credit for everything the brave nature scientists had discovered in the skies and the ocean, underground caves and the highest snowy hills, without leaving his home”, the reader live both in the past and today, can learn to understand the great laws of nature and can communicate with all the world’s people.

Alexander von Humboldt and the Cosmos

Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos
A Portrait of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos (1845-62)

Alexander von Humboldt moved to Berlin in 1827 and spent his last years writing the best-selling work Cosmos, published between 1845-1862, and represents a sum of everything he learned. The first volume takes the reader on a journey to the stars, crossing the interstellar wonders, heading towards a diamond full of life, the greatest miracle, the Earth in the depths of the vast space. The second volume navigates the history of humanity to show how our concept of “nature” has evolved in art and literature, science and technology, and discoveries over a thousand years. Subsequent volumes outline everything that is known about the stars and planets, the Earth, and the world of living things, but even Humboldt cannot keep pace with the rapidly evolving science and die without fully realizing his great vision.

But his vision has no end anyway: even today the science is still making additions to it. So if someone asks what is Humboldt’s most important discovery, the answer is the Cosmos itself. Humboldt shows the integrity of the physical universe by emphasizing that we humans see the beauty and order in this universe and give it life as a Cosmos. According to Humboldt’s view, all nature and all history cooperated to create the Cosmos, and it will be the future of all humanity to continue it with science, art, and poetry.

Alexander von Humboldt quotes

  • “There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.”
  • “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.”
  • “I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.”
  • “While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more ennobled by mental cultivation than others—but none in themselves nobler than others.”
  • “I saw with regret, (and all scientific men have shared this feeling) that whilst the number of accurate instruments was daily increasing, we were still ignorant”
  • “With most animals, as with man, the alertness of the senses diminishes after years of work, after domestic habits and progress of culture.”
  • “Nature can be so soothing to the tormented mind”
  • “This view of a living nature where man is nothing is both odd and sad. Here, in a fertile land, in an eternal greenness, you search in vain for traces of man; you feel you are carried into a different world from the one you were born into.”
  • “Our imagination is struck only by what is great; but the lover of natural philosophy should reflect equally on little things.”