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The Interconnectedness of All Nature – The Story of Alexander Von Humboldt

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Over 300 animal species, places, and natural features have been named after Alexander Von Humboldt. Humboldt’s name has also been given to a region of the moon, called Mare Humboldt, and two asteroids. Humboldt was a renaissance man, making original contributions in an incredible number of areas; geology, chemistry, engineering, physics, medicine, biology, and mathematics. At one time, Humboldt was, rightly, the most famous scientist on earth. Today he is surprisingly unknown outside a small circle of scientists.

Alexander Von Humboldt was born to a wealthy family in Prussia (now Germany) in 1769. Humboldt’s father died when he was ten years old. His mother was not emotionally close to Humboldt and his elder brother, but she ensured that the two brothers received one of the best humanitarian and scientific educations through private tutors. Humboldt’s mother wanted her sons to enter the civil service, but Humboldt had, from an early age, a passionate interest in all scientific aspects relating to the earth. As a young boy, he was known to collect a large number of plants, small animals, and various types of rocks in his room.

Humboldt was twenty-seven years old when his mother died. Humboldt and his brothers inherited all the substantial family wealth. Humboldt used his share to devote his life to scientific explorations. Humboldt explored many of Europe’s natural parts and spent five years on a trip to South America, where he continuously traveled, covering over 24,000 miles. During Humboldt’s exploration of the tropical forests along the Orinoco river (in present-day Venezuela), his observations and measurements allowed scientists to clearly see the ecological connections between living beings and their environment. Humboldt’s work revealed the critical role of the environment on the incredible diversity of life on earth.

Humboldt connected places on earth with similar temperatures and uncovered the similarity of different ecological zones circling the earth. For Humboldt, it was the unity of nature that was most apparent in all his explorations, and he was interested in almost everything he saw. He wrote, “People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once. But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?”

Humboldt slept only 4 hours a day and spent as much time as possible in productive work. Humboldt wrote, “It is far more difficult to observe correctly than most men imagine; to behold is not necessary to observe, and the power of comparing and combining is only to be obtained by education. It is much to be regretted that habits of exact observation are not cultivated in our schools; to this deficiency may be traced much of the fallacious reasoning, the false philosophy which prevails.”

Humboldt was also a kind person. He was a mentor and teacher to many younger scientists and wrote over 25,000 letters in his lifetime. Humboldt encouraged the young Charles Darwin, who wrote, “Humboldt, like another sun, illuminates everything I behold.”

Humboldt wrote 36 books and urged people to spend time understanding the natural world. Humboldt wrote, “The most dangerous worldviews are the worldviews of those who have never viewed the world.”

Humboldt showed by example how life can be well lived, and while he is now not so well known, his advice to us is still very relevant:

  • “True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.”
  • “How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is.”

Humboldt dies aged 89. In 1869 on Humboldt’s 100th birth anniversary, the famous writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Humboldt was one of those wonders of the world who appear from time to time as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind. Humboldt’s natural powers were all united so that an [entire] University traveled in his shoes.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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