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Book Summary: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

My Personal Summary

This book is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, one of the most famous scientists and naturalists of his time, who lived from 1769 to 1859.

Humboldt was born into a wealthy Prussian family in 1769. When his mother passed away in 1796, he inherited a huge sum of money that allowed him to quit his job and pursue his passion of traveling the world and observing nature.

In 1799, the king of Spain granted Humboldt permission to join a ship that was headed for South America and asked for Humboldt to return with flora and fauna from the region in exchange.

Humboldt would spend the next five years traveling around Central and South America, collecting thousands of plant specimens and taking copious notes about plants and animals throughout the region.

When he returned to Europe, he would write several nature books that would inspire a plethora of future famous individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Simon Bolivar, and many others.

One of his most famous writings, Personal Narrative, documented his personal journey through South America. This book is said to have inspired Charles Darwin to join the Beagle, which would be the voyage where he would gather observations about various flora and fauna around the globe and would plant the seeds for his theory of evolution.

Today there are countless towns, counties, mountains, plants, animals, waterfalls and rivers named after him.

Book Notes

  • Humboldt was born in 1769 to a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family.
  • Humboldt’s father died when he was only 9 years old and his mother was very cold to him and his brother.
  • Growing up, Humboldt constantly wandered around outside, collecting and making drawings of plants and animals.
  • As a boy, Humboldt read the journal of Captain James Cook, who circumnavigated the globe in the 1770’s. This inspired Humboldt and made him want to travel himself.
  • Interesting: While at university, Humboldt collected plant specimens in his free time and studied how light affected plant growth, even though this wasn’t part of his academic studies. This seems to be a pattern among great men: they don’t wait for tasks to be assigned to them, instead they have their own drive and ambition to learn things and better themselves.
  • After studying mining at university, Humboldt became a mine inspector at age 22, surpassing many more senior men. He even invented a mask to help workers breathe better in the mines.
  • Humboldt became good friends with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was known as a great poet but who was also deeply interested in science and botany in particular.
  • Humboldt was highly curious about a variety of fields and he loved conducting his own experiments. “I cannot exist without experiments”, he said.
  • When Humboldt’s mother died in 1796, he inherited a huge sum of money which he planned to spend on expeditions.
  • In 1799, the king of Spain granted Humboldt permission to join a ship that was headed for South America and asked for Humboldt to return with flora and fauna from the region in exchange.
  • Interesting: At the time of the voyage, Spain was in a military battle with Britain so nobody on the ship was allowed to light candles at night in case they would be seen by British naval ships. This frustrated Humboldt since he “required little sleep” and was accustomed to studying by candle light deep into the night.
  • After 41 days at sea, Humboldt’s ship arrived in modern day Venezuela. Once there, he spent his days collecting plants, taking notes on the flora and fauna of the region, and making astronomical observations.
  • It was in Venezuela that Humboldt witnessed firsthand how human actions could disrupt nature. He saw that the Spanish people living in the region had cleared forests for farming, which removed trees that previously retained moisture in the environment and prevented excessive erosion. Once the forests were cleared, rivers ran faster and erosion increased.
  • Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect.
  • Humboldt was obsessed with volcanoes and wanted to figure out if all the volcanoes around the earth were somehow connected in the earth’s core. While in South America, he scaled nearly every volcano he could find, often risking his life in treacherous climbing conditions.
  • While scaling Chimborazo, an inactive volcano in Ecuador, he observed the different types of plants that grew at each altitude. This inspired him to create Naturgemalde, a sketch he’s now famous for that depicts a drawing of Chimborazo with plants labeled at various altitudes along with measurements on temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure.
  • While observing plants in South America, Humboldt was frequently reminded of similar plants he had seen in Europe or Mexico. This made him realize that all of nature is “connected” or “related” in some way.
  • Humboldt was curious about everything. “His coat pockets were like those of a little boy – full of plants, rocks and scraps of paper. Nothing was too small or insignificant to investigate because everything had its place in the tapestry of nature.”
  • After spending five years traveling through South America and Mexico, Humboldt traveled to the United States in 1804 to meet with Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., to share some of his findings and discoveries made during his travels. Jefferson was particularly excited to meet Humboldt because he has a passion for botany and gardening himself.
  • Humboldt left the U.S. and returned to Europe in 1805, choosing to reside in Paris, France because it had become the epicenter of scientific thought. Once there, he lectured about his findings, conducted more experiments, and discussed scientific theories nonstop with new scientific friends. He worked so much that it seemed as if “night and day form one mass of time.” He slept very little (this is similar to how Thomas Edison slept very little because he worked nonstop and often slept under his desk).
  • While in Europe, Humboldt met Simon Bolivar, and the two discussed their mutual distaste for the Spanish colonies in South America. Bolivar would later go on to liberate six countries in South America from Spanish rule.
  • Humboldt wrote and published Essay on the Geography of Plants in 1807, detailing his findings about plants around the world.
  • Humboldt later wrote Personal Narrative in 1814, which documented his personal journey through South America. This book is said to have inspired Charles Darwin to join the Beagle, which would be the voyage where he would gather observations about various flora and fauna around the globe and would plant the seeds for his theory of evolution.
  • Humboldt was an expert in many topics but he was awful with his personal finances. Someone close to him once remarked, “the only thing in heaven or earth that M. Humboldt does not understand is business.”
  • In 1829, at age 60, Humboldt traveled through Russia, Mongolia and China and collected samples of plants and rocks to bring back to Europe.
  • Humboldt noted that three human activities had a direct negative impact on the environment: deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and air pollution via steam and gas.
  • In 1831, Charles Darwin joined the voyage of the Beagle, a ship that circumnavigated the globe. He brought with him Personal Narrative, the travel book written by Humboldt many years prior. When Darwin returned to England in 1836, he wrote about his first ideas that would eventually become his theory of evolution. Many people noticed similarities between ideas he wrote and ideas that Humboldt wrote after his travels in South America. In developing his theory of evolution, it can be said that Darwin stood on the shoulders of Humboldt.
  • At age 65, Humboldt attended university lectures given by other professors to brush up on topics he didn’t know much about. He was a voracious learner even at an old age.
  • In 1845, Humboldt published Cosmos, a massive book about everything from the Milky Way galaxy to geography to plants and animals and explained how it all was interconnected. Humboldt considered this his greatest life’s work.
  • Henry David Thoreau was inspired by Humboldt’s writings when he himself wrote Walden, one of the most famous nature writings in American history. Thoreau was inspired by Humboldt’s ability to write both scientifically and poetically about nature and took a similar approach when writing Walden, which was a detailed account of his time spent in nature at Walden Pond just outside Concord, Massachusetts in the late 1840’s.
  • Humboldt died at age 89 in 1859.
  • George Perkins Marsh was another individual inspired by Humbdolt’s writings. He would publish Man and Nature in 1864, a book that warned about the negative effects man could have on nature if taken too far. He would go on to also help establish Adirondack Park, a 6 million acre park in New York.
  • John Muir was another individual who had been inspired by Humboldt’s writings and would go on to become an influential conservationist who campaigned for the creation of national parks and preservation of wild lands in the U.S.

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