19 June 2008

Alexander von Humboldt

That Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest naturalist and scientific explorers of European history, did not get a mention in my lectures has been on my mind for quite some time. I rationalized this omission by telling myself that a course on the relationship between science and society cannot cover the biographies of all who came to fame during the age of discovery: My table “Major Expeditions 1700 – 1850” in Lecture 25 mentions twenty people (von Humboldt being one of them), but only five of them feature in the index, and short biographies are provided for only four of those.

I have now studied von Humboldt’s biography and have to admit that his low treatment in the context of science and society is not justified. This is not the place to summarize his life, but a few comments on his position in the development of science during the early 19th century are in order.

Alexander von Humboldt (14 September 1769 - 6 May 1859) was born and died in Berlin, the capital of Prussia. After an unremarkable education he became intensely interested in botany, became knowledgeable in mineralogy and meteorology and developed a hunger for exploration. But in the late 18th century exploration went hand in hand with imperial expansion. Prussia was a political power of third rank, and while the Prussian king wanted to boost his Academy of Sciences he did have neither the means nor the inclination to develop a world empire.

Von Humboldt’s career as a scientist vividly demonstrates how scientific progress is shaped by the political constellation of the time. Unable to join an exploration party in his home country, von Humboldt tried to join French exploration efforts. He was invited to join Nicolas Baudin, but political upheaval caused the postponement of Baudin’s voyage. An attempt to go to Egypt with Napoleon Bonaparte also came to nothing. Eventually Spain’s prime minister Mariano de Urquijo supported an application to the Spanish king for a royal permit to visit the Spanish possessions in the Americas.

During the five years 1799 - 1804 von Humboldt and his companion Aimé Bonpland travelled some 9,650 kilometres through South and Central America, walking the ancient Inca roads, canoeing on its rivers and riding across its mountains. Spain’s colonies were in those days only accessible to government officials and Roman Catholic missionaries, and von Humboldt’s and Bonpland’s discoveries in an otherwise closed continent turned into invaluable contributions to the growing knowledge base of botany, geography and earth sciences generally.

On his return from America in 1804 von Humboldt lived in Paris, the centre of science, until in 1827 his financial means were exhausted and he had to return to Berlin, where he received a royal stipend as the tutor of the Crown Prince. He used the last three decades of his life to write Kosmos, a description of the structure of the universe as then known that within a few years was translated into nearly all European languages.