Must-read books for scientists: 2. The Invention of Nature

When I launched my lab website in 2013, I had a vague idea that I would write one to two posts a year where I urged fellow scientists to read a book that I had found particularly inspiring or educational. That first post was about Stephen Clarkson and Stepan Wood's A Perilous Imbalance. Sadly, Stephen Clarkson has, since, died. In more cheerful news, in a well-deserved honour, Stepan has moved to UBC to take up the Canada Research Chair in Law, Society and Sustainability!

It has been an eventful four years for me. At last, here's my second post in the series!

When he died, at nearly 90, Alexander von Humboldt was the most famous scientist in the world. He influenced everyone from Simon Bolivar to Charles Darwin to John Muir, and Thomas Jefferson. Wealthy women certainly knew about Humboldt and his work, and he probably influenced many of them, but history overlooks the role of women, including in science and biology.

These days, beyond his name popping up all over the place, around universities, penguins, currents and plants, in The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf contends that Humboldt's scientific impact has largely been forgotten. She proposes that one of the reasons for downplaying or even erasing his work and legacy, is that he was German. Humboldt has always had a box in my favourite textbook, Raven's Plant Biology. I must admit, that until I read Wulf's book, I never paid very much attention to it.

After reading The Invention of Nature, I have added Humboldt to the list of people that I would like to meet, if time-travel was a real thing. Here are a few reasons why should we remember and celebrate Humboldt.

  1. He went on amazing field expeditions, where, like Darwin, he observed large-scale vegetation patterns. Humboldt gave the world the hugely important concept of BIOMES.
  2. He was always strapped for research funds, but he did the work, anyway.
  3. He observed and analyzed the negative impact of humans on the environment.
  4. He was a scientist with political opinions. Von Humboldt would definitely have participated in March 22nd's March for Science.
  5. He was an experimentalist who designed and built his own instruments.
  6. He was an excellent observer and naturalist.
  7. He networked with, and mentored young scientists.
  8. He was friends with, and supported, artists and poets.