Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alexander von Humboldt: The Dark Knight of Science

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most influential figures in science. He is most famous for his “Tableau” and trip to the Americas in which he compares and contrasts plant life at different altitudes and latitudes. This was revolutionary in the way that scientists understood plant life, since scientists assumed plants varies longitudinally more so than latitudinally. Humboldt was the one of the first to question this and test it fully, and his results were incredible. However, this is not the only revolution in science that Humboldt contributed to. Unfortunately, very few people today know about his full contributions. Stephen Jackson’s Introduction in the “Essay on the Geography of Plants” states that he also, “ . . . fostered development of the first international networks of meteorological observations, invented the isotherm, . . . advocated the volcanic origin of basalt, . . . pioneered the field of geomagnetism, . . . work[ed] in economic geography, . . . [and] work[ed] in atmospheric physics” (Jackson, 3). It is interesting that he isn’t as well known in these fields and it is important to discuss the reasons why this is the case.

The first point wroth discussing is that Alexander von Humboldt is what we would call today a “jack of all trades.” As an example, we can see how Jackson describes the first few days on Humboldt’s trip to the Americas. He writes, “It took them some weeks to prepare for systematic scientific work, between the continual barrage of new sights, smells, and sounds” (Jackson, 10). There was so much going on around him that he couldn’t initially focus on just one aspect. This mentality followed him to his death. He took tons of data back to Europe with him and spent the rest of his life writing books and volumes trying to get the data to the public. Humboldt was not like Darwin. Darwin spent a majority of time on his research on natural selection and that is what he is known for. Humboldt contributed so much to the scientific world that nowhere really knows where to classify him or what best o remember him by.

Another issue is that the work he had done that is best to remember him by was, soon after, “ . . . dispersed among subdisciplines within geology, zoology, climatology, oceanography, taxonomy, and other fields” (Jackson, 38). Each of these fields laid claim to some portion of Humboldt’s work, but none of it was every enough for him to be renowned by every scientist for all of the work that he accomplished. This specialization may not have taken place in the same manner that it did if it weren’t for Humboldt in the first place, so his work is much more important than the modern day people are led to believe. It is important to note that, “The past few decades have witnessed a convergence of several separate disciplines toward a new incarnation of Humboldt’s physique du monde” (Jackson, 40). Some fields that branched immediately after Humboldt’s studies are converging again in order to better understand the problems that every day society faces today, such as global warming, plate tectonics, and wildfires.

The Dark Knight is the most recent Batman movie, in which Batman becomes vilified by actions he didn’t commit; yet he still helps the city of Gotham and just doesn’t take credit for his actions. The scientific community certainly doesn’t vilify Humboldt, but if it weren’t for his studies, the specialization and consequent realization of the importance of unification of those branches of science may not have happened the way that it did, and Humboldt receives minimal credit for this. That makes him the Dark Knight of Science.


Jackson, Stephen T. “Introduction: Humboldt, Ecology, and the Cosmos,” Essay on the Geography of Plants, ed. and intro. Stephen T. Jackson, trans. Sylvie Romanowski (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), pp. 1-46.

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