The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

September 14, 2013

September 14, 1769

Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769 to May 6, 1859) was a sickly child and poor student. Later he fell in love with botany, and his restlessness found an outlet in the idea of exploring foreign lands. The Britannica website provides a sketch of the life of the man 
 who would become known as the father of geography.

In the summer of 1799 he set sail from Marseille accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, whom he had met in Paris, ...The estate he had inherited at the death of his mother enabled Humboldt to finance the expedition entirely out of his own pocket. Humboldt and Bonpland spent five years, from 1799 to 1804, in Central and South America, covering more than 6,000 miles....on foot, on horseback, and in canoes. It was a life of great physical exertion and serious deprivation.....

From another source we get more details:

With its volcanoes and waterfalls, crocodile-infested waters and jungles, the interior of South America provided plenty to marvel at and much to fear. Humboldt received a shock from an electric eel and nearly poisoned himself with curare, a plant-derived toxin used by Amazonian Indians to bring down prey. Bonpland had to save him from a near drowning because Humboldt could not swim, and, when he was uncomfortably close to a jaguar, Humboldt noted, “There are moments in life when it is useless to call on reason.” Although scared, he remembered to walk—not run—away.

But back to Britannica_

...Humboldt and Bonpland moved through dense tropical forests, tormented by clouds of mosquitoes and stifled by the humid heat. Their provisions were soon destroyed by insects and rain; the lack of food finally drove them to subsist on ground-up wild cacao beans and river water. Yet both travellers, buoyed up by the excitement provided by the new and overwhelming impressions, remained healthy and in the best of spirits until their return to civilization, when they succumbed to a severe bout of fever.
...Whenever Humboldt had found himself in a centre of commerce in America, he had sent off reports and duplicates of his collections to his brother, Wilhelm, who had become a noted philologist, and to French scientists; unfortunately, the continental blockade then enforced by British ships prevented the greater part of his mail from reaching its destination.

...The years from 1804 to 1827 Humboldt devoted to publication of the data accumulated on the South American expedition. With the exception of brief visits to Berlin, he lived in Paris during this important period of his life. There he found not only collaborators among the French scientists—the greatest of his time—but engravers for his maps and illustrations and publishers for printing the 30 volumes into which the scientific results of the expedition were distilled. Of great importance were the meteorological data, with an emphasis on mean daily and nightly temperatures, and Humboldt’s representation on weather maps of isotherms (lines connecting points with the same mean temperature) and isobars (lines connecting points with the same barometric pressure for a given time or period)—all of which helped lay the foundation for the science of comparative climatology. Even more important were his pioneering studies on the relationship between a region’s geography and its flora and fauna, and, above all, the conclusions he drew from his study of the Andean volcanoes concerning the role played by eruptive forces and metamorphosis in the history and ongoing development of the Earth’s crust. These conclusions disproved once and for all the hypothesis of the so-called Neptunists, who held that the surface of the Earth had been totally formed by sedimentation from a liquid state. ...

During his years in Paris, Humboldt enjoyed an extraordinarily full life. He had the ability to cultivate deep and long-lasting friendships with well-known scientists, .... and to evoke respect and admiration from the common man, an ability that reflected his generosity, humanity, and vision of what science could do. A gregarious person, Humboldt appeared regularly in the salons of Parisian society, where he usually dominated the conversation. He lived simply, in a modest apartment at the top of an old house in the Latin Quarter. His fortune had been seriously depleted by the cost of his expedition and the publication of his books, and for the rest of his life he was often in financial straits.

...During the last 25 years of his life, Humboldt was chiefly occupied with writing Kosmos, (1845) one of the most ambitious scientific works ever published. Four volumes appeared during his lifetime. Written in a pleasant, literary style,Kosmos gives a generally comprehensible account of the structure of the universe as then known, at the same time communicating the scientist’s excitement and aesthetic enjoyment at his discoveries. Humboldt had taken immense pains to discipline his inclination to discursiveness, which often gave his writing a certain lack of logical coherence. He was rewarded for his effort by the success of his book, which, within a few years, had been translated into nearly all European languages.

In Alexander von Humboldt we see  exemplified the best of Enlightenment values: the world is a place where man's intellect and daring can discover great secrets.  

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