September 14 – Happy Birthday, Alexander von Humboldt

Posted on September 14, 2014

Nobody ever seems to
mention that Humboldt
was a darned good artist.
But since this is a self-
portrait, I'd say he was
really good!
Today is the birthday of “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived” – according to a guy who was a pretty amazing scientific traveler himself, Charles Darwin! 

Alexander von Humboldt, who was born on this date in 1769 in Berlin (which was at that time in Prussia), became a geographer, naturalist, and explorer. He traveled in Europe, Latin America, and Russia. (For more on his Russian explorations, check out this earlier post.) 

He ended up becoming one of the most famous men in Europe and was heaped with praise and honors for his discoveries and ideas.

Another drawing by Humboldt that
demonstrates his superior art skills.
I guess it was important for scientists
to be good at drawing what they saw...
back when there was no such thing
as photography!

Some of the species Humboldt described—plants and animals that were previously unknown to European scientists—are named after Humboldt, as are many geographical features such as harbors, currents, glaciers, mountains, and rivers. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation was created after the great scientist's death in order to encourage young-and-struggling scientists. People as varied as Latin American “Liberator” Simon Bolivar and author Edgar Allan Poe joined Charles Darwin in singing Humboldt's praises.

Two Big Ideas

Drawing by Humboldt
Humboldt is considered the “father of physical geography,” and he favored a holistic view of nature and interrelated sciences, including biology, meteorology, and geology. This viewpoint is the precursor of environmental science, which looks at both the nonliving and living parts of the environment and explains whole systems and habitats.

Humboldt was also one of the first to suggest that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined, pointing out the way that Africa and South America seem to fit together.

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the completion of Handel's Messiah

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