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Alexander von Humboldt

Charles Darwin called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived” and he has more plants, animals, minerals, and places named after him than anyone else, but Alexander von Humboldt’s most significant contribution of all may be as the first prophet of climate change

T hat there is a Humboldt lily, a Humboldt crater on the Moon, and a Humboldt squid that swims in the cold Humboldt Current off the coast of Peru indicates the breadth of interests pursued by the polyglot genius who was born in Berlin in 1769. The second child of an aristocratic Prussian family, he lost his father when he was nine and had a cold and distant mother.

He sought solace in collecting plants, insects, and rocks. Sent away to college to study finance, Humboldt met Georg Forster, a naturalist who had accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage (see pp. 172–75). The two traveled to Europe where Humboldt met another of Cook’s scientific compatriots, Sir Joseph Banks, with whom he developed a close friendship. After college, Humboldt became an inspector in the Ministry of Mines, which allowed him to indulge his interest in geology. It was not until his mother’s death in 1796, when he inherited a windfall, that he was properly able to pursue his wider scientific interests

Latin American expedition

Humboldt set off for South America with botanist AiméBonpland. Landing in what is now Venezuela, they canoed up rivers, trekked through the rainforest, and scaled some of the highest peaks in the Andes. In her 2015 biography The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf portrays Humboldt as insanely intrepid: trekking barefoot when his shoes disintegrated; swimming in crocodile-infested waters; and conducting experiments on electric eels bare-handed. In the course of his adventures, Humboldt kept detailed journals and measured everything he could, from rainfall levels and soil composition to the blueness of the sky.

He identified 2,000 new plant species and crossed the magnetic equator. While on Mount Chimborazo in today’s Ecuador, he was struck by the idea that the Earth was one single great living organism in which everything is connected. He also reasoned that by disrupting this natural order, man might bring about catastrophe— a message so far ahead of its time that many still have trouble accepting it even today. Returning to Europe, he wrote a monumental 30-volume account of his findings. It was this wor

Crossing Russia

Most scientists would be content to devote themselves to a lifetime studying the fruits of such an extended trip (Humboldt returned with 60,000 specimens), but the Prussian was not one to sit still. In 1829, at the age of 59, he embarked on a sixmonth expedition to the Ural Mountains and Siberia. When he died, aged 90, his funeral in Berlin drew tens of thousands of mourners, and American newspapers lamented the end of the “Age of Humboldt.”

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Last word

The French First Republic had been at war with Britain and several other European monarchies since 1792. The territory of Egypt was shortly to become a pawn in this game of empires. Napoleon and his advisors saw that by occupying this distant province of the declining Ottoman Empire, they could divide Britain from its colonial interests in India.

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