The invention of nature

  • Written by  Andrea Wulf
  • Published in Mapping
Alexander von Humboldt, immortalised in bronze at a favourite viewpoint on the island of Tenerife Alexander von Humboldt, immortalised in bronze at a favourite viewpoint on the island of Tenerife Santi Rodriguez
05 Feb
2016
Ahead of a talk at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), author Andrea Wulf sheds light on the extraordinary Alexander von Humboldt – the forgotten father of environmentalism

He was a visionary thinker, a daring explorer and the most famous scientist of his age (1769–1859). He described nature as a web of life where everything was connected – at a time when other scientists looked through the narrow lens of classification. He described Earth as a living organism and pre–dated James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory by more than a century. ‘Nature is a living whole,’ Humboldt said, ‘not a dead aggregate.’ He predicted harmful human–induced climate change in 1800.

Today he’s almost forgotten in the English–speaking world, but his legacy is enormous. More places, plants and animals are named after him than anyone else, from the Humboldt Current to the penguin and several mountain ranges, but he’s also the founder and populariser of ‘infographics’ – long before the term was used. Not only was he at the forefront of map–making, he was also the first to present his scientific data using stunning visualisations. He championed topographical maps and hachure techniques as well as inventing isotherms, the lines which we see today on our weather maps.

In 1799, Humboldt set off on a five–year exploration of Latin America – a voyage that shaped his thinking and that made him legendary across the world. He ventured deep into the rainforest and crossed the Andes, carrying dozens of scientific instruments to record everything. Humboldt was obsessed with measurements but also believed in the power of imagination. His first and most stunning depiction of nature as an interconnected whole was his so–called Naturgemälde – a German term that can mean ‘painting of nature’ but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness. It was, as Humboldt later explained, a ‘microcosm on one page’.

NaturgemaldeAlexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemälde

His three–foot by two–foot Naturgemälde depicted Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador that he had climbed, in cross–section and on it Humboldt showed plants distributed according to their altitudes. To the left and right of the mountain he placed several columns that provided related details and information, ranging from temperature, gravity, and humidity to the blueness of the sky – again all related to the height of the mountain. The variety but also the simplicity of the scientific information was unprecedented. Humboldt showed the relationship between the elevation and the distribution of plants – and throughout his life, he used these kind of ‘infographics’.

1114814 quarterTableau physique de la pente Orientale du Plateau de la Nouvelle Espagne

playfair chart2 1801William Playfair’s charts of England’s national debt

Interestingly Humboldt had been inspired by William Playfair’s charts that showed England’s national debt. Playfair had used graphics, colour coding and pie charts to illustrate economic data and Humboldt translated this method for his own work. He turned tables of numbers into visual language. In 1817, for example, he published an essay on climate for which he invented isotherms. Until then meteorological data had been collected in long tables of temperatures – endless lists of different geographical places and their climatic conditions which gave precise temperatures but were difficult to compare. One look at Humboldt’s isotherm map revealed a new world of patterns that hugged the Earth in wavy belts. Humboldt believed that this was the foundation of what he called ‘vergleichende Klimatologie’ – comparative climatology.

humboldt map 1817Humboldt’s isotherm map

During his long career Humboldt worked together with 50 artists who transformed his field sketches and data into spectacular maps and engravings. Such as the maps that showed the subterraneous connections of volcanoes and those that revealed transportation and exports of precious metals along the imperial trade routes.

humboldt map world metals 1811Humboldt’s maps of imperial trade routes for the export of precious metals

He also collaborated with Heinrich Berghaus who produced an atlas that accompanied Humboldt’s bestselling book Cosmos. Berghaus’s Physikalischer Atlas included maps that showed the distribution of plants but also the occurrences of earthquakes across the world.

bromme map 1851Heinrich Berghaus’s map of volcanoes and earthquakes

BotanicalHeinrich Berghaus’s Outlines of Botanical Geography. The Distribution of Plants in a Perpendicular Direction, in the Torrid, the Temperate and the Frigid Zones; with Indications of the Mean Temperature of the Year and of the Coldest and Warmest Months

Already in 1807, Humboldt wrote: I thought that if my Naturgemälde were capable of suggesting unexpected analogies to those who study its details, it would be capable of speaking to the imagination and providing the pleasure that comes from contemplating a beneficial as well as majestic nature.’ He believed in the power of learning and wrote many books that were aimed at a general audience. ‘With knowledge comes thought,’ he said, and with thought comes ‘power’. One of Humboldt’s greatest achievements was to make science accessible and popular. He did so by using a simple and non–scientific language as well as through infographics. Everybody learned from him: farmers and craftsmen, schoolboys and teachers, artists and musicians, scientists and politicians. ‘There is not a text–book of geography or a school atlas in the hands of our children today, which does not bear… the imprint of his great mind’, said the scientist Louis Agassiz in 1869 in Boston, during the centennial celebrations of Humboldt’s birth.

Andrea Wulf is the author of The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, which won the 2015 Costa Biography Award. She will be talking about Humboldt at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) on Monday 15 February.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

1 comment

  • michael hart "He predicted harmful human–induced climate change in 1800."

    And people are still predicting it. He's been wrong for 215 years so far, and today's doomsters haven't been right yet either. Some things never change, it seems.
    Sunday, 24 April 2016 21:53 posted by michael hart

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

READER SURVEY

We want to know what you think...

Help us shape the future of Geographical and enter our prize draw to win a Thule backpack worth £100!

Reader Survey

 

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

MaltaUni300x100UniOfHertsBuilding300x100StAndrewsUniBuildingLogo300x100

TRAVEL PARTNERS

CoxKing300x100

Intrepid300x100

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades l...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    Dealing with drugs
    While Ebola makes the headlines, a raft of unreported and under-researched diseases are responsible for far more deaths across Africa every year. But ...
    Growing pains
    Population levels are rising and nowhere is this felt more keenly than in the world’s megacities – urban sprawls that each house over ten million ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Mapping

From the clothes you are wearing, to the shoes on…

Mapping

As Geographical takes a look at the geopolitical state of…

Mapping

New 3D maps reveal the extent of a near-invisible threat:…

Mapping

A stunning interactive map shows a year in the life…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig gets to grips with the increasingly globalised world…

Mapping

Geographical’s resident data cartographer, Benjamin Hennig, breaks down the recent…

Cities

City leaders from around the world gathered recently for the…

Mapping

A quirk of geology has produced a strange pattern on…

Mapping

The true proportions of Richard Nixon’s victory in the 1972…

Mapping

From US debt to cosmic exploration, water use to missing…

Mapping

Coasts are a more complex geographical entity than you might…

Mapping

The methods we use to teach physical geography and environmental…

Mountains

Norway is looking to gift a mountain to Finland as…

Forests

The world’s first comprehensive report on plant species finds over…

Mountains

As a Cumbrian hill in the Yorkshire Dales is offically…

Mapping

Out of sight, out of mind, the world's oceans are…

Mapping

Home ownership in the UK has changed dramatically in recent…

Mountains

Chris Fitch travels to the Jungfrau region of Alpine Switzerland,…

Mapping

Mark Cooper-Jones and Jay Foreman tap into a rich vein…

Mapping

Which country has been the most successful in Olympic history?…