Humboldt’s Gift (Economist)

greenview[Editor's note: My alma mater and home county in California (others) are named after the famous German naturalist, apt for a school with strong Geography program.]

Republished from the Economist.

Alexander von Humboldt pioneered the science now used to study climate change

AMID this year’s flurry of scientific jubilees, one seems to have passed largely unnoticed. On May 6th admirers celebrated the 150th anniversary of the death of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist and geographer. He may no longer be as famous as some of his contemporaries, yet Humboldt’s work sheds a clear light on the great challenges the world faces today from climate change.

Humboldt cut a remarkable figure. He traveled widely, making scientific notes of his many geographical, zoological and botanical discoveries, and formulating theories to explain the relationships he observed. Humboldt noticed, for example, that volcanoes form in chains and speculated that these might coincide with subterranean fissures, more than a century before plate tectonics became widely accepted. Broadly educated, cosmopolitan and a polyglot, he championed the study of how living things were related to their physical surroundings. Charles Darwin described him as “the greatest traveling scientist who ever lived” and later added, “I have always admired him; now I worship him.”

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