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The Invention of Nature

Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

By Andrea Wulf
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The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature (2015) shines a light on the extraordinary life of explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Discover Humboldt’s amazing perspective on our relationship to the world and find out how his ecological discoveries and observations are just as relevant and profound today as they were in the nineteenth century.

Key idea 1 of 12

From an early age, Alexander von Humboldt had a longing to see the world.

Let’s travel back in time to meet the adventurous explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. He was born to a respected and aristocratic Prussian family on 14 September 1769. His father was an advisor to King Wilhelm III, and his mother came from a wealthy manufacturing background.

Alexander had one brother, Wilhelm, who was two years older than he was. Unfortunately, their father died when Humboldt was only nine years old. Afterward, their mother grew reclusive and let tutors take most of the responsibility of raising her children as intelligent and honorable young adults.

But unlike his brother, Alexander always preferred nature to studying.

While Wilhelm took to his books, Alexander roamed the countryside estate where he lived, filling his pockets with plants and bugs and earning the nickname, “the little apothecary.” Though his mother wanted both of her boys to be civil servants, Alexander was fascinated by the new age of exploration and grew up dreaming of leaving home and seeing the world.

So, as young Alexander von Humboldt reached adulthood, he spent his non-working hours following his passion for science and nature.

He dutifully continued his education, excelling in science, math and language. But he found a special interest in geology and, at the age of 22, landed steady work as a mining inspector. While improving conditions for miners, Humboldt also studied the underground plant-life of the mines and published his first book on subterranean flora.

Also, whenever he found the time, he obsessed over the latest scientific advances in zoology, botany, and the mechanics of life.

He became particularly interested in galvanism, the study of biological reactions to electric currents, even using his own body to conduct experiments!

But all the while, Humboldt found it more and more difficult to calm a restless mind that longed to escape Europe. But before he could venture to uncharted lands, he met the man who would change the way he saw the world around him.

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