On the Road with Alexander von Humboldt

A portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1806)

A portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1806)

On August 3, 1804 geographer, naturalist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt returned home from his great South America scientific discovery journey.

Actually, Humboldt did not make this journey all alone. He had a companion, Aimé Bonpland. But today, almost nobody will remember Bonpland. Being an explorer as well as a botanist, Bonpland worked together with Humboldt during five years of travel in Mexico, Colombia and the districts bordering on the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. In these explorations Bonpland collected and classified about 60,000 plants that were, until then, mostly unknown in Europe. Nevertheless, all the world is talking about Humboldt, hardly anybody has ever heard of Bonpland. To change this fact, you definitely should read Daniel Kehlmann‘s  ‘Measuring the World‘ (Die Vermessung der Welt). Well, not only because of this fact, but also because it is a worth while reading!

BTW, if you seriously watch the portrait of Humboldt on the right by Friedrich Georg Weitsch from 1806, there is a slight resemblance of Humboldt with the young Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Thinking of Shatner, this opens up a completely new view on Humboldt. ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before…‘ I think maybe Daniel Kehlman has also remarked this similarity, when portraying von Humboldt in his novel. 🙂

But of course Humboldt was extraordinary as a human subject as well as a scientist. Between 1799 and 1804, together with Bonpland Humboldt travelled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time in a manner generally considered to be a modern scientific point of view. His description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. This memorable expedition may be regarded as having laid the foundation of the sciences of physical geography and meteorology. By his delineation (in 1817) of “isothermal lines“, he at once suggested the idea and devised the means of comparing the climatic conditions of various countries. Humboldt‘s services to geology were based mainly on his attentive study of the volcanoes of the New World. He showed that they fell naturally into linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures; and by his demonstration of the igneous origin of rocks previously held to be of aqueous formation, he contributed largely to the elimination of erroneous views, such as Neptunism.

Much of Alexander von Humboldt‘s private life remains a mystery because he destroyed all of his private letters. He never married and he was strongly attached to his brother’s family throughout his lifetime.

At yovisto academic search engine you can learn more about Alexander von Humboldt and his travels from a lecture of Prof. Ottmar Ette from University of Potsdam talking about ‘Trans Topics: Alexander von Humboldt and the hemispheric constructions‘.

References and further Reading:

 

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