The man be­hind the name

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - FRONT PAGE - Dna­sun­day@ dnain­dia. net, @ dna

Alexan­der von Hum­boldt ( 17691859) is one of those treasures that time for­got. And yet, pri­mar­ily in the 19th cen­tury, which is re­ally not so very long ago, and well within the reach of doc­u­mented his­tory, Hum­boldt was al­most a house­hold name in the English- speak­ing world, parts of Latin Amer­ica and Europe. This Ger­man sci­en­tist, ex­plorer, writer, nat­u­ral­ist, an­thro­pol­o­gist and ge­og­ra­pher was so idolised that even Charles Darwin de­scribed him as the great­est sci­en­tific trav­eller who had ever lived.

In fact, his name lives on. In many parts of North and South

Amer­ica and other parts of the world, Hum­boldt’s name is still to be found in towns and rivers, as well as sundry geo­graph­i­cal land­marks, hun­dreds of species of plants and over 100 an­i­mal species. Con­sider, for in­stance, the Hum­boldt glacier in Green­land, an as­ter­oid named af­ter Hum­boldt and, more fa­mously, the cold Hum­boldt Cur­rent off the coast of Peru and Chile. A sim­ple Google search re­veals all this, and even the fact that there is an area called Mare Hum­bold­tianum on the moon.

Cu­ri­ously though, not many peo­ple, in­clud­ing mem­bers of his own fra­ter­nity, seem to re­mem­ber the man be­hind the name. And that is why An­drea Wulf ’ s beau­ti­fully con­ceived and writ­ten book is so im­por­tant. How­ever, it isn’t as if oth­ers haven’t tried to re­vive Hum­boldt’s legacy. In 2007, Aaron Sachs pub­lished The Hum­boldt Cur­rent, an ex­pos­i­tory

study of Hum­boldt’s enor- mous in­flu­ence on the his­tory of Amer­ica as well as on its philoso­phers and his­to­ri­ans, via the trav­els of four other ex­plor­ers. The book was a valiant at­tempt to es­tab­lish Hum­boldt’s dear­est prin­ci­ple – that of a con­nec­tive chain that unites all hu­mankind and its var­i­ous sur­round­ings.

Much like Sachs, Wulf, too, cre­ates a book that blends nar­ra­tive and in­ter­pre­ta­tion. How­ever, be­cause her can­vas is larger, and her book is di­rectly con­cerned with the man him­self, the read is a more en­rich­ing one. As Wulf per­cep­tively points out, “It is al­most as though his ideas have be­come so man­i­fest that the man be­hind them has dis­ap­peared”. In a nut­shell, that is what has hap­pened to the world’s mem­o­ries of Hum­boldt. His fantastic dis­cov­er­ies no longer seem so amaz­ing in the con­text of mod­ern sci­ence, per­haps, and that is a big rea­son why his con­tri­bu­tions have re­mained un­no­ticed by mod­ern gen­er­a­tions.

So the chal­lenge that Wulf takes on is to make Hum­boldt rel­e­vant again, bas­ing her saga on Hum­boldt’s epic jour­ney to the Amer­i­cas in 1799, a jour­ney that was no less mo­men­tous than Darwin’s leg­endary voy­age on HMS Bea­gle in 1831. Hum­boldt’s com­pan­ion on his jour­ney was Aimé Bon­pland. Thanks to some for­tu­itous fund­ing by the Bour­bon monar­chy of Spain, whose in­ter­ests in the New World were largely com­mer­cial, Hum­boldt and Bon­pland fi­nally set sail for South Amer­ica, stop­ping for six days on the is­land of Tener­ife, where Hum­boldt climbed the Teide Vol­cano, and landed in mod­ern- day Venezuela in July.

With­out ram­bling about Hum­boldt’s many as­ton­ish­ing ex­ploits on this jour­ney, most of which Wulf cap­tures in the book, suf­fice to say that among his achieve­ments was the first ever map of the Up­per Orinoco river’s union with a trib­u­tary of the Ama­zon, a geo­graph­i­cal feat that up­set all con­tem­po­rary per­cep­tions and forced a re- look at the spread of the Ama­zon river sys­tem.

The duo’s jour­ney lasted al­most nine months and cov­ered ap­prox­i­mately 1,300km and broke so much new ground that the achieve­ment is al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to­day, not to men­tion the dif­fer­ent cli­matic re­gions it en­com­passed. Wulf ’ s book also men­tions a ter­rific earth­quake dur­ing which Hum­boldt serenely took mea­sure­ments and made notes, too im­mersed in his in­ter­ests to fear death. Also, dur­ing his time in Venezuela, Hum­boldt prob­a­bly be­came the first di­rect pro­po­nent of con­ser­va­tion when he cor­re­lated the fall­ing lev­els of Lake Va­len­cia to the felling of trees and ex­plained why trees were so im­por­tant for our ecosys­tem.

In the midst of all this, we get con­stant glimpses of Hum­boldt the man, sharp of mind and tongue, im­mensely driven, the multi- dis­ci­plinar­ian who tried to com­bine var­i­ous branches of sci­en­tific knowl­edge, the loner who clearly loved the com­pany of men, and who prob­a­bly sought to as­suage his so­cial iso­la­tion ow­ing to his sex­ual pref­er­ences through con­stant – and dan­ger­ous – phys­i­cal travel.

( Ex­treme left) A paint­ing of Alexan­der von Hum­boldt by Joseph Stiele; ( Along­side) A map trac­ing Hum­boldt’s ex­pe­di­tion across con­ti­nents

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