The Pioneering Maps of Alexander von Humboldt

Smithsonian | 10/15/2019 | Staff
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The German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most celebrated scientists of the 19th century. In 1869, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, 25,000 people gathered in New York's Central Park to listen to speeches extolling his accomplishments and witness the unveiling of a large bronze bust of Humboldt, who had died ten years earlier. Flags and enormous posters showing Humboldt's face lined the streets of Manhattan. Similar celebrations took place around the world—in Berlin, Humboldt's birthplace, 80,000 admirers gathered in the chilly rain to listen to eulogies and songs sung in his honor.

It's hard to imagine any modern scientist achieving such celebrity, and now, 250 years after his birth, Humboldt himself has largely been forgotten by the general public. But as historian Andrea Wulf wrote in her 2015 biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, his scientific legacy lives on in scores of geographic features and place names, from a glacier in Greenland to a mountain range in Antarctica. (The state of Nevada was almost named Humboldt, Wulf writes.) The Latin names of nearly 300 plants and more than 100 animals pay homage to him, including the aggressive, predatory Humboldt squid, which can grow up to eight feet long and weigh 100 pounds.

Humboldt - Contribution - Interconnectedness - Climate - Geography

Humboldt's major scientific contribution was realizing the interconnectedness of climate, geography, nature, and human societies. His ideas were revolutionary for the 19th century, and they remain relevant today for scientists studying the effects of climate change.

What’s often omitted, however, in discussions of Humboldt’s scientific legacy is the role that his pioneering maps and scientific illustrations played in shaping his thinking. By creating visualizations of data that had previously been bound up in tables, Humboldt revealed connections that had eluded others, says historian Susan Schulten of the University of Denver. “He’s really a...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Smithsonian
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