Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infected Siberia, or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Among Humboldt’s most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone.
Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world, and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt’s influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau’s Walden.
With this brilliantly researched and compellingly written book, Andrea Wulf shows the myriad fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world.
Andrea Wulf was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She lives in Britain where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art and is now a full-time writer. She is the co-author (with Emma Gieben-Gamal) of THIS OTHER EDEN: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History (Little Brown 2005). In 2008, her book THE BROTHER GARDENERS: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession (William Heinemann) was published and longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2008.
She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Sunday Times, Financial Times, The Garden, Kew Magazine, and regularly reviews for several newspapers, including the Guardian, Mail on Sunday and the Times Literary Supplement. She lectures widely to large audiences including the Royal Geographical Society, Royal Society and Chelsea Physic Garden in Britain as well as the Academy of Natural Sciences, the International Center for Jefferson Studies (Monticello) and the U.S. Botanic Garden in the United States. She has also talked at major prestigious literary festivals including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Hay Literary Festival and Cheltenham Literary Festival. She is a regular contributor to BBC radio and television.