Jun 10, 2011

Great Man: Alexander von Humboldt

Book Review of: Nature’s Interpreter: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt by Donald McCrory
Lutterworth, 242 pp, £23.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7188 9231 9. From the LRB (registration might be required). 
Alexander von Humboldt was once called the last man who knew everything, the last generalist before an age of specialisation definitively set in. His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy. When he died in 1859, at the age of 89, he enjoyed cult status as a scientific hero and genius.
In the course of his journey he scaled volcanoes and descended into mines; he witnessed a meteor shower, collected rocks and handled electric eels; he made close studies of the flora and fauna (including the human fauna); he examined everything from the properties of guano to the prospects for sugar plantations. And wherever he went he measured – heights, angles, distances, temperatures.
There was one more great journey, an eight-month expedition to the Urals and Siberia in 1829, approved and funded by the tsarist government, keen to acquire evidence about mineral deposits. This was nothing new for Humboldt, whose South American journey had provided the Spanish crown with information on mines and other resources.
Humboldt and Darwin had in common that their major works stemmed from journeys across the Atlantic, just as they both remained gentleman scholars who never taught at a university. 
McCrory provides a basic but unreliable narrative. He likes his subject, but does no kind of justice to the complex character he is dealing with. Humboldt was generous, selfless and loyal; he was also vain, opportunistic and touchy.

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