Book Review

Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich, Gotham Books, New York, 2004; ISBN 1592400523, hardback, $27.50.

This colorful, accessible book focuses on the explorations of Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), one of the most famous intellectuals of his time. Goethe, a renaissance man himself, said: "Humboldt possesses a versatility of genius which I have never seen equaled. Whatever may be the subject broached, he seems quite at home with it, and showers upon us treasures in profusion from his stores of knowledge." He made important contributions to geology, geography, magnetism, botany, and to what were to become climatology, meteorology, oceanography, and anthropology.

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From youth Humboldt longed to explore the world, but only at 27, after university and several years as a mine inspector, was he financially free to realize his dream. With the official authorization of the Spanish monarch, he embarked on an expedition to Spanish America with his friend Aime Bonpland, a medically trained botanist. After months of scientific observations en route, they docked in Venezuela in the summer of 1799. Everything was surprising and new: climate, scenery, volcanic mountains, birds, animals, and native peoples. Humboldt took with him 42 of the most accurate and portable scientific instruments available, and his field research was meticulous: he analyzed and recorded meteorological, geological, geographical, astronomical, cartographical, anthropological, and zoological data, and collected some 60,000 plant specimens, 3,000 of them unknown in Europe. He developed new methods of displaying scientific data that are still used today, and made many important discoveries, such as finding the earth's magnetic equator and establishing the science of plant geography by documenting that similar latitudes or altitudes produce similar vegetation.

Humboldt's enormous courage and determination made his researches possible and successful. He traveled throughout what is now Venezuela, Columbia, Equador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba. The description of his expedition on Venezuela's wild Orinoco River brings alive the sudden fierce winds and downpours, the water filled with piranhas, banks crowded with crocodiles, boas, vipers, and jaguars, and air thick with mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats. On his return from the rain forest, he visited Cuba, then went on to explore the northern Andes and investigate the social and economic situation in Mexico. At that time in Latin America only Europeans were respected. Contrarily, Humboldt felt that all people, despite differences, were units of humanity and as such should be equally regarded and treated kindly, views expressed in his works, which also first popularized knowledge of the grandeur of pre-Columbian civilizations.

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Alexander von Humboldt

After five years, it was time to go home. He stopped in Cuba and the United States, where he conferred with President Jefferson, before enjoying an enthusiastic welcome in Paris, where his many plant samples were exhibited and he began writing his American findings in 30 volumes. His books were widely influential; as Darwin later wrote: "I shall never forget that my whole course of life is due to having read and re-read as a youth [Humboldt's] Personal Narrative." When Humboldt died a few months short of his 90th birthday, his impressive funeral procession in Berlin was crowded with friends and admirers, and his death and the 100th anniversary of his birth were noted with ceremonies throughout the United States. Gerard Helferich sums up his importance:

By opening up a new continent to scientific inquiry, by laying the foundation of so many branches of modern science, by revolutionizing research methods through careful observation and measurement in the field — and especially by urging the scientific enterprise toward the search for unifying principles — Alexander von Humboldt played a crucial part in creating science as we know it today. . . . Humboldt's quest to grasp the unity of nature, far from being a dusty anachronism, is as vital as ever. — p. 332

Readers will enjoy becoming acquainted with this remarkable man. — Jean B. Crabbendam

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)


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