Alexander von Humboldt: The Most Famous Scientist Of His Age

Culture Trip

No other man has so many things named after him as Alexander von Humboldt. Whether it be the Humboldt Current, the Humboldt Penguin, minerals such as Humboldtit, or the Universidad Alejandro de Humboldt. The number of things to be found across the world bearing his name, from species to institutions, is truly astounding yet, simultaneously, in many areas of the world this individual has faded from our consciousness.
Though we might not know it, Humboldt helped shaped the entire way we see nature and our environment. His observation of the global connections between all aspects of nature was revolutionary in the Western world. Our entire environmental consciousness and notions of our eco-system have been shaped by Humboldt’s findings. Furthermore, not only his scientific observations but also his literary style and character would go on to influence the likes of Charles Darwin, Simón Bolívar, John Muir, Henry Thoreau, Frederic Church among many others.

Alexander von Humboldt

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was born in Berlin to a Prussian aristocratic family. His brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt was a brilliant linguist, a Prussian diplomat who revolutionized the Prussian educational system. He was also the founder of the now Humboldt University of Berlin. Unlike his brother however, Alexander von Humboldt had no intention of having a stable life in Europe; he wished to travel and explore the world. After some initial setbacks in getting permission for an expedition, Humboldt finally received it from the Spanish Crown to explore Latin America in 1799 with his companion, the French botanist, Aimé Bonpland. This opportunity was unique, up to that point the Spanish Crown was reserved about allowing outsiders from exploring their territories.

Expeditions

Other expeditions included traveling to Switzerland and Italy. More significantly was the expedition where he travelled to Russia in 1829. With a desire to gain valuable insights about the nation’s resources, Russia offered to pay for the expedition though they tightly monitored his movements within the country. This expedition provided useful insights for drawing global comparisons and analyses of nature.

Humboldt’s Remarkable Findings

Humboldt’s explorations and observations have had a resounding impact not only in terms of scientific inquiry and knowledge but also indirectly in various spheres of global consciousness and was referred to by Bolívar as the ‘true discoverer of Latin America’. He found, for example, that the Orinoco and Amazon rivers were connected by a waterway, resolving an old European question. His mapping of the continent provided unprecedented accuracy. He was a pioneer in outlining vegetation zones and developed the revolutionary concept of isothermal lines; the categorization of different areas that have the same mean temperature across the globe. Fascinated by earth’s magnetic properties, he measured a location’s magnetic strength, setting the foundations for geometric readings and helped establish stations across the world for global comparisons. As an experienced climber of various mountainous regions and a keen observer of volcanoes, he promoted volcanic activity as central to rock formations as opposed to the oceans, disproving Neptunist views on how rocks were formed.

All these observations, among many others, reflect Humboldt’s way of perceiving the world and leads us to his most fundamental contribution: the interconnectedness of nature. During a time where the sciences were becoming more specialized, Humboldt progressed in the opposite direction. He believed nature to be an ecosystem, where one development or action would result in a chain reaction. This view would change the way the Western world saw its engagement with nature. It was Humboldt, for example, who first discovered the importance of forests and trees for the atmosphere, their retainment of water and pivotal role in tackling soil erosion. Consequently, Humboldt saw deforestation as having disastrous effects.

Influence

Throughout his lifetime, Humboldt was at the center of scientific debate and inquiry, inexhaustibly exchanging ideas with his contemporaries. From traveling to London or attending lectures in Berlin, to debating in the salons of Parisian society, Humboldt was a magnetic force of scientific exchanges. Some of his most notable works included Personal Narrative, Political essays on the Kingdom of New Spain, Aspects of Nature, Views of Nature and the most ambitious work of Cosmos.

In addition to including scientific findings, Humboldt valued the importance of emotion in describing his analyses of nature as well as using visual aides. Consequently, Humboldt presented his findings as a combination of facts and intriguing narrative, outlining nature’s interconnectedness and amassing a large spectrum of readers. Seen as the world’s most famous living scientist, many individuals including intellectuals, possessed copies of his work. These included Simón Bolívar and Charles Darwin. The most influential of his books for Darwin was Personal Narrative, which he enthusiastically re-read, annotated and used as a source of reference. Humboldt impressed his contemporaries to such an extent that Thomas Jefferson deemed him the most important scientist in the world (they would write to one another often). His works and writing style were captivating and eye opening and also gave new inspiration to the naturalists of the day including writers such as Henry David Thoreau.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond and his statue

Alexander von Humboldt died in May 6, 1859 in Berlin at the age of 89. His death was mourned all over the world and the centenary of his birth on the 14th of September 1869 was celebrated across the globe with festivities and monuments made in his honor. Though we might now take it for granted, the notion of the interconnectedness of nature was not obvious in his time, making his work revolutionary. His strong advocacy against human exploitation, his warnings about the impact of human activity on the environment and his promotion of a global scientific community sharing information have not lost their relevance in today’s world.

landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article