The Invention of Nature | Andrea Wulf

Summary of: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
By: Andrea Wulf


Embark on a journey through the life and discoveries of Alexander von Humboldt, a pioneering explorer whose passion for science and nature has left an indelible impact on our understanding of the world. The book ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf delves into Humboldt’s remarkable adventures, insights, and discoveries which ultimately led him to perceive nature as an interconnected whole. From his early life filled with curiosity, to powerful friendships with prominent figures such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to his awe-inspiring South American expedition, Humboldt’s story will leave you with a fresh appreciation of the natural world and the importance of preserving it.

Alexander von Humboldt: The Adventurous Explorer

Meet Alexander von Humboldt, born into an aristocratic Prussian family in 1769. While his mother wanted both of her boys to be civil servants, Alexander was fascinated by exploration and the natural world. Despite excelling in science, math, and language, Alexander preferred nature to studying and earned the nickname “the little apothecary.” At the age of 22, he landed steady work as a mining inspector and published his first book on subterranean flora while studying the underground plant-life of the mines. He also became interested in galvanism and used his own body to conduct experiments. Despite his fascination with science and nature, Alexander longed to escape Europe and explore uncharted lands. Before he could do so, he met the man who would change the way he saw the world around him.

Nature, Science, and Poetry

Alexander von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe shared a unique perspective on science and nature. They transcended the traditional methods of studying rocks, plants, and animals in an office or laboratory. For them, subjectivity was key in understanding nature. They believed that poetry and science were part of the same process. With this perspective, Humboldt saw the best way to help others understand his observations in nature was through Romantic writing. By connecting with people’s feelings, he could communicate more effectively than through any purely scientific text, a realization he put to use on his long-awaited adventure.

Humboldt’s Eye-Opening Expedition

In the late 18th century, Alexander von Humboldt embarked on an expedition to South America that would change his perspective on nature and the world. Despite facing delays and obstacles due to the Napoleonic Wars, Humboldt finally landed in Venezuela and was amazed by the kaleidoscopic wonders before him. He saw plants, animals, and landscapes that he had never seen before, but instead of viewing them in isolation, he observed them in a global, interconnected context. Humboldt’s experiences during the expedition led him to realize that everything in the world was connected, and his understanding was solidified by an earthquake that greeted him upon his arrival, which changed his perception of the planet’s creative and destructive forces.

Humboldt’s Journey of Understanding

Follow the journey of Alexander von Humboldt as he learns about the importance of nature conservation during his travels in South America. From the brutal practices of slavery to the destruction of ecosystems by colonists, Humboldt witnesses firsthand the devastating impact that human actions can have on the environment. Along the way, he discovers the vital role that trees play in maintaining the Earth’s delicate balance, and develops a deeper understanding of the complex interconnectedness of nature.

Humboldt’s Journey to Chimborazo

Explore the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt and his significance in connecting the world through nature.

Alexander von Humboldt and his partner Bonpland faced many challenges during their journey through South America in 1802. Despite the ruthless mosquitos, fever, dysentery, blizzards, and near-death experiences, Humboldt never lost sight of his goal – reaching the Andes and exploring the fascinating volcanoes that lined the horizon.

Unlike many at the time, Humboldt viewed volcanoes as an extension of the same force within the earth’s core rather than an isolated phenomenon. He climbed and inspected multiple volcanoes but none compared to the inactive Chimborazo located in modern-day Ecuador.

Although Chimborazo is not the tallest summit in the world, it held an extraordinary significance for Humboldt due to its proximity to the equator, which made its peak the furthest point from Earth’s center. Humboldt’s ascent to the top was arduous as he suffered from altitude sickness, jagged rocks, and the need to crawl on all fours along narrow ridges.

However, his perseverance paid off when he realized that Chimborazo was the perfect embodiment of his vision of a connected world. At every few hundred feet, he stopped to measure and collect samples of everything around him, realizing he was observing all of nature laid out before him from the top.

By comparing his previous observations on the Alps to Chimborazo, Humboldt saw the threads of nature that connected everything and gained insight on Earth’s equator. His journey to Chimborazo provided meaning to his life’s work in connecting the world through nature.

Humboldt’s Big Ideas

In 1803, Alexander von Humboldt returned from his expedition to South America with thousands of sketches, observations, and plant specimens. Along the way, he stopped to visit Thomas Jefferson, with whom he shared ideas on agriculture and sustainability. When Humboldt returned to Europe, he turned his research into a series of books, including “Essay on the Geography of Plants,” which was the first ecological book in the world. The book showcased Humboldt’s “Naturgemälde,” an illustration of Chimborazo that demonstrated the relationship between plant life, climate zones, and altitudes around the world. Humboldt’s work described ancient connections between continents, and he supported the free exchange of information to expand scientific knowledge. Humboldt’s ideas remain influential today.

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