Humboldt: More Than a Big Squid
Alexander von Humboldt is largely forgotten (aside from the Humboldt Current and the Humboldt Squid) but he was the most intrepid and famous man of his age, and his influences on our perception of nature and the environment were monumental; Andrea Wulf's book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World is everything you could ever want to know about Humboldt, and also features wonderful chapters on the folks that he influenced and inspired; every time I thought I had enough Humboldt, she described another inspired adventure, or how he met up with and influenced another notable person, and Wulf even writes wonderful mini-biographies of some of the people who were most indebted to Humboldt's writing and discoveries . . . here are a few of the many memorable things Wulf describes:
1) Humboldt was buddies with Goethe and was the inspiration for his most famous character Dr. Faustus, who made a pact with the devil in "exchange for infinite knowledge,"
2) Humboldt never married and the exact nature of his sexuality was ambiguous . . . but he certainly enjoyed the company of men, one of his most celebrated bromances was with his travelling and writing partner, Aime Bonpland . . . Wulf describes them as a "great team" because they were exact opposite: "Humboldt spread frantic activity" while Bonpland "carried an air of calmness and docility,"
3) when Humboldt and Bonpland were in South America, they had an especially fruitful time experimenting with electric eels . . . they drove horses into the water where the eels were and watched the "gruesome spectacle" and for "four hours they conducted an array of dangerous tests including holding an eel with two hands, touching an eel with one hand and a bit of metal with the other, or Humboldt touching an eel while holding Bonpland's hand (with Bonpland feeling the jolt)"
4) In Views of Nature he explained the "correlation between the external world and our mood"
5) Humboldt spend quite a bit of time with Thomas Jefferson, and inspired Jefferson to look for megafauna in North America (to show up French Naturalist Georges-Louis Buffon, who claimed that everything in the New World was feeble compared to its European version)
6) Charles Darwin was inspired by Humboldt and he "modelled his own writing on Humboldt's, fusing scientific writing with poetic description"
7) Hector Berlioz, the great romantic composer of Symphony Fantastique, loved Humboldt's book Cosmos and claimed that it was incredibly popular among musicians;
8) Edgar Allan Poe's last work, the 130 page prose poem Eureka, was "dedicated to Humboldt and was a direct response to Cosmos"
9) Humboldt advised Simon Bolivar, annoyed Napoleon, inspired Thoreau to write Walden, influenced John Muir and the entire conservation movement, and had loads of other far-reaching implications with his prodigious correspondence, his travels (to South America and Siberia in particular), his copious experiments and measurements, his many publications, and his cult of personality . . . this book is so dense with detail that I can barely keep one-tenth of it straight, but one thing will remain in my brain years and years from now, Humboldt is more than the guy who discovered a really scary predatory six foot long, one hundred pound squid (although that's a great accomplishment in itself).