15 October 2008

Baron Alexander von Humboldt –The Last Renaissance Man

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the first persons to move geographical studies from the ancient into the current era. The Prussian natural scientist and geologist traveled around a great deal of South America, studying the environment, mountaineering and monitoring astronomical events. His contributions to science spanned biology, geography, climatology, geology, hydrology, among others. Charles Darwin called him “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived” and he is widely considered to be the last renaissance man, who could gather within himself a substantial portion of human knowledge.

Humboldt was born into a noble family in Berlin on September 14, 1769, of German and French Huguenot parentage. While he was still a boy his father, an army officer, died. The young Humboldt studied at the universities of Frankfurt an der Oder and Gottingen from 1787 and later went to the School of Mines at Freiburg in Saxony. While there he studied under the famous geologist A.G. Werner. He became wealthy enough to plan a 5-year period of exploration after his mother’s death in 1796.

The household was marred by his mother’s “cold and aloof” nature. A private tutor educated Humboldt and his brother, Wilhelm, who turned out to be a distinguished economist with worldwide fame as well that lives to this day. Humboldt never married but derived great joy from friendships with colleagues and others and also from his brother’s friendly household. In 1792 he joined the mining department of the Prussian Government and promotion came quickly given his brilliance and dedication.

Humboldt sailed from A Coruna, Spain on June 5, 1799, armed with powerful recommendations from the Spanish king, and headed for Caracas. At that time Spain was preoccupied with the pursuit of wealth and conquest in its American colonies. In February 1800 he left the Venezuelan coast for the purpose of exploring the course of the Orinoco River. Four months and 1725 miles of uncultivated and unoccupied country later, while traveling by foot and canoe, Humboldt established the existence of a communication between the water systems of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers.

This bifurcation, known as the Casiquiare Canal, is the only place in the world where two river systems that flow in different directions (the Orinoco goes north and the Negro/Amazon flows southeast) have any kind of fluvial communication.  The existence of this canal was a rumor dismissed as impossible by European geographers at the time.  Catholic priests had originally reported it, but provided no scientific evidence to it in the early XVIII century.

It was a tremendously dangerous environment with alligators, jaguars and swarms of biting insects, aside from numerous uncontacted tribes that are today recognized as the Yanomami. At times he and his traveling companion, botanist Aime Bonpland, had no food, and conditions were almost unbearable. Still isolated, still unwelcoming, still undeveloped, this wild region is little changed today.

Humboldt and Bonpland collected over 60,000 plant, animal and mineral specimens and still found the time to study electricity. They were the first Europeans to discover an animal that produces electricity: Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel.

To obtain electric eels for carrying out tests, he and his helpers drove about 30 horses into an eel-infested lake, trapping the horses there to be shocked repeatedly until the frantic eels exhausted themselves and posed little danger to the humans. Two tormented horses drowned in the first five minutes. They were vindicated somewhat when a not-quite-exhausted eel later shocked Humboldt. In fact, Humboldt freely subjected his own body to agonizing electrical experiments, including gripping an eel in one hand and a piece of metal in the other to expand the electric charge.

Humboldt´s explorations in the Casiquiare Canal and upper Rio Negro made him the second scientific explorer in the Amazon, following La Condamine.  Unfortunately, the Portuguese rulers were so afraid of the new ideas and “hidden intentions” of Humboldt´s mission that there was an order in the Marabitans fort for his arrest if he entered Portuguese territory (in Brazil today).  As he was unable to proceed down the Rio Negro to meet the Amazon river, he turned back and journeyed to Cuba, the Magdalena River Basin of Colombia, and the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.  There, where he climbed the volcano Chimborazo to an elevation of more than 5800m (19,000 feet) above sea level to study the relation of temperature and altitude.  He was recognized at the time as the record holder of altitude in the world, when Europeans had only climbed Mont Blanc, a much smaller mountain.

Humboldt established the use of isotherms in map-making, studied the origin and course of tropical storms, and made pioneer investigations in the relationship between geographic environment and plant distribution. He measured and discovered the Peruvian Current, which, over the objections of Von Humboldt himself, is also known as the Humboldt Current. He made observations leading to the discovery of meteor shower periodicity, and examined the fertilizing properties of guano. His review of the political and historical characteristics of South America, Mexico and the Caribbean are also noteworthy.

South America was a virtually unknown land, and much of what Humboldt observed was new knowledge. He tirelessly recorded his observations, no matter where he went or what he did. This proved to be his greatest legacy. He published more than 30 volumes of facts between 1805 and 1827, proving his brilliance as a writer and artist.

Humboldt once said, “devoted from my earliest youth to the study of nature, feeling with enthusiasm the wild beauties of a country guarded by mountains and shaded by ancient forests, I have experienced in my travels, enjoyments which have amply compensated for the privations inseparable from a laborious and often agitated life.”

Another notable quote from Humboldt is, “One of the noblest characteristics which distinguish modern civilization from that of remoter times is, that it has enlarged the mass of our conceptions, rendered us more capable of perceiving the connection between the physical and intellectual world, and thrown a more general interest over objects which heretofore occupied only a few scientific men, because those objects were contemplated separately, and from a narrower point of view.”

In his time, von Humboldt was an explorer and scientist of incomparable renown, and his work largely inspired Charles Darwin and influenced the course of a number of scientific disciplines. Humboldt’s Cosmos, a biography written by Gerard Helferich, retraces the 1799-1804 odyssey of von Humboldt through Central and South America while merging the various stories written about the explorer into a succinct appreciation of his character and scientific significance.

Humboldt became an international celebrity after he self-published a sequence of publications about his travels in the Americas. These publications were extremely popular and were translated into many languages. They contained radical beliefs for the time, such as Humboldt’s judgment that the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas were in every respect equal to those of any other part of the world.

As the first biologist to draw attention to the unifying aspects of the physical world, von Humboldt can be considered the first conservationist to support ecological balance, a concept that was at variance with mainstream science’s view of a “chaotic world” and preoccupation with specialization. Besides being Darwin’s mentor, von Humboldt’s inflence also extended to Simon Bolivar, the Latin American hero.

During the final years of his long life Humboldt wrote a five-volume work, Kosmos (The Cosmos, 1845-1862) in which he described not only his infinite scientific knowledge but also most of the accumulated scientific knowledge of geography and geology at the time. Kosmos has been called the first textbook of geophysics. Humboldt died in Berlin on May 6, 1859.


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