The Most Influential Scientist You May Never Have Heard Of

Thanks to Tom Robb for suggesting this post

Gaze at Alexander Von Humboldt’s 1814 self-portrait and you peer into the eyes of a man who sought to see and understand everything. By this point in his life, at age 45, Humboldt had tutored himself in every branch of science, spent more than five years on a 6,000 mile scientific trek through South America, pioneered new methods for the graphical display of information, set a world mountain climbing record that stood for 30 years and established himself as one of the world’s most famous scientists, having helped to define many of today’s natural sciences.

Humboldt, born in Berlin, is sometimes called the last Renaissance man – he embodied all that was known about the world in his day. He spent the last three decades of his life writing Kosmos, an attempt to provide a scientific account of all aspects of nature. Though unfinished at the time of his death in 1859, the four completed volumes are one of the most ambitious works of science ever published, conveying an extraordinary breadth of understanding.

An 1817 Humboldt manuscript showing a geographic distribution of plants. APS Museum

Throughout his life, Humboldt sought out the world’s interconnections. Today knowledge can seem hopelessly fragmented. The sciences and humanities speak different languages, the scientific disciplines frequently seem incommensurable and the university itself often feels more like a multiversity. Against this backdrop, Humboldt represents the aspiration for encompassing order; if only we look deeply enough, we can locate an intricate underlying harmony.

In reflecting on this ambition in Kosmos, Humboldt wrote:

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.

To understand the entire natural order, however, Humboldt had to pour himself into “special branches of study,” without which “all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion.” More here IFLScience.

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One Response to The Most Influential Scientist You May Never Have Heard Of

  1. alfy says:

    He is not quite unknown, as he does have an Ocean Current named after him, and a Penguin species, and how many of us can say that? I have beautiful coffee-table book on von Humboldt, so I must go and have look at it again, after this welcome prompt from Tom.

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