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Humboldt
1769-1859

Born into German aristocracy

Read stories of R. Crusoe and capt. Cook

Wants to “investigate all interactions of nature”, desires to obtain a unifying picture of the Universe

Goes to Venezuela on a ship

Makes drawings of plants and animals (like we today would photograph)

Speaks against slavery (in South America)

Spends time in Caracas, later in Mexico

He is a pre-cursor of Darwin, inspired the later to go to South America

Charts “plant geography”, as he notes the similarity between plants receding from equator to the North, and from the bottom of the mountain to the top.

Fascinated with volcanoes

H. speaks to Jefferson in the U.S.

Makes a crossing from the U.S. to France in 27 days (a record for the times)

Spent all his fortune in pursuit of knowledge and shares his results with all

Against fragmentation of science and loss of aesthetics from science.

Any understanding, pursuit of knowledge is an aesthetic experience

TED presentation (short) on A. von H.

"Cosmos "

A summary of the physical knowledge of the Universe at the time (mid XIX century). This universal knowledge makes it attractive.

“Cosmos, or harmoniously ordered whole”

“The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.”

“Nature presents itself to meditative contemplation as a unity in diversity.”

Humboldt set himself the task “to analyze the individual parts of natural phenomena without succumbing beneath the weight of the whole.”

Contact with nature is healing on a human being:

“Mere communion with nature, mere contact with the free air, exercise a soothing yet strengthening influence on the wearied spirit, calm the storm of passion, and soften the heart when shaken by sorrow to its inmost depths. (That’s where the beauty of yachting comes from.) Continued: The earnest and solemn thoughts awakened by a communion with nature intuitively arise from a presentiment of the order and harmony pervading the whole universe, and from the contrast we draw between the narrow limits of our own existence and the image of infinity revealed on every side, whether we look upward to the starry vault of heaven, scan the far stretching plain before us, or seek to trace the dim horizon across the vast expanse of ocean.”

Problem with science is its inability to see the whole because of the many details:

“There is, perhaps, some truth in the accusation advanced against many German scientific works, that they lessen the value of general views by an accumulation of detail, and do not sufficiently distinguish between those great results which form, as it were, the beacon lights of science, and the long series of means by which they have been attained. This method of treating scientific subjects led the most illustrious of our poets* to exclaim with impatience, "The Germans have the art of making science inaccessible." An edifice can not produce a striking effect until the scaffolding is removed, that had of necessity been used during its erection”

However, many attempts have been made to grasp the whole:

“History has preserved the record of the numerous attempts that have been made to form a rational conception of the whole world of phenomena, and to recognize in the universe the action of one sole active force by which matter is penetrated, transformed, and animated.” 

I am involved in making one such attempt with “Map of knowledge”.

Content of the work: after a preface, starts a discussion of “space”, cosmological phenomena. Then, he discusses “the terrestrial phenomena”, geology: heat of the nucleus, magnetism.

Connection of magnetism and electricity. Aurora Borealis. Earthquakes and volcanoes. Gasses and springs coming out of the earth. Rocks and minerals.

Passes on to fossils and paleontology. Discusses the geological periods of the Earth. Discusses the physical geography of the Earth. Meteorology – the study of the air. The atmosphere. The different climates.

The vegetable and animal life. Geographical distribution of plants and animals.

The origin of the human species. Human races. The human languages. Desire to travel, and nostalgia for one’s country. 

A video on a sailing ship named after the scientist

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