Summary and book reviews of The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature

Alexander von Humboldt's New World

by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2015, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2016, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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Book Summary

The acclaimed author of Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world - and in the process created modern environmentalism.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still graces four counties, thirteen towns, a river, parks, bays, lakes, and mountains. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether he was climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax-infected Siberia or translating his research into bestselling publications that changed science and thinking. Among Humboldt's most revolutionary ideas was a radical vision of nature, that it is a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone.

Now Andrea Wulf brings the man and his achievements back into focus: his daring expeditions and investigation of wild environments around the world and his discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zones on different continents. She also discusses his prediction of human-induced climate change, his remarkable ability to fashion poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and his relationships with iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf examines how Humboldt's writings inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and she makes the compelling case that it was Humboldt's influence that led John Muir to his ideas of natural preservation and that shaped Thoreau's Walden.

With this brilliantly researched and compellingly written book, Andrea Wulf shows the myriad fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science.

Excerpt
The Invention of Nature

Five months after his arrival, Humboldt finally left Quito on 9 June 1802. He still intended to travel to Lima, even though Captain Baudin wouldn't be there. From Lima Humboldt hoped to find passage to Mexico, which he also wanted to explore. First, though, he was going to climb Chimborazo – the crown of his obsession. This majestic inactive volcano – a 'monstrous colossus' as Humboldt described it – was about one hundred miles to the south-west of Quito and rose to almost 21,000 feet.[7]7 

As Humboldt, Bonpland, Montúfar and José rode towards the volcano, they passed thick tropical vegetation. In the valleys they admired daturas with their large trumpet-shaped orange blossoms and bright red fuchsias with their almost unreal-looking sculptural petals. Then, as the men slowly ascended, these voluptuous blooms were replaced by open grass plains where herds of small llama-like vicuñas grazed. Then Chimborazo...

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    Costa Book Awards
    2016

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

With almost a hundred pages of explanatory notes and a bibliography extensive enough to comprise a near-lifetime of reading for even avid readers, The Invention of Nature is a serious book about a seriously important figure. Even if it never really transcends standard biography, Wulf certainly makes her case, establishing the singular significance of a man whose work was etched in stone but whose name was written on the shifting sands of time.   (Reviewed by James Broderick).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Wulf's stories of wilderness adventure and academic exchange flow easily, and her affection for von Humboldt is contagious.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Engrossing... Humboldt was the Einstein of the 19th century but far more widely read, and Wulf successfully combines a biography with an intoxicating history of his times.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of The Signature of All Things and Big Magic
Andrea Wulf is a writer of rare sensibilities and passionate fascinations. I always trust her to take me on unforgettable journeys through amazing histories of botanical exploration and scientific unfolding. Her work is wonderful, her language sublime, her intelligence unflagging.

Author Blurb Richard Holmes, author of Coleridge and The Age of Wonder
The Invention of Nature is a big, magnificent, adventurous book - so vividly written and daringly researched - a geographical pilgrimage and an intellectual epic! With brilliant, surprising, and thought-provoking connections to Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, William Herschel, Charles Lyell, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and George Perkins Marsh. The book is a major achievement.

Author Blurb A. N. Wilson, author of The Victorians and Victoria: A Life
This is a truly wonderful book... one of the most exciting intellectual biographies I have ever read, up there with Lewes's Goethe and Ray Monk's Wittgenstein... Hoorah, hoorah!!

Author Blurb Miranda Seymour, author of Noble Endeavors: A History of England and Germany
Andrea Wulf's marvelous book should go a long way towards putting this captivating eighteenth century German scientist, traveler and opinion-shaper back at the heart of the way we look at the world which Humboldt helped to interpret, and whose environmental problems he predicted.

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Beyond the Book

Galvanism

Who would have thought that one frog could have such a huge impact on science?

As bizarre as it sounds, that was exactly the case. In the late eighteenth century, a scientist named Luigi Galvani performed an experiment on a frog, making a slight cut just beneath the frog's skin to expose nerve cells. When the scalpel came into contact with a metal hook holding down the body, sparks flew, and the legs of the frog twitched. His conclusion? Animal tissue is endowed with electricity. The scientific conclusion Galvani reached — and the remarkable widespread interest it engendered – led to a surge of interest, especially in the medical community, but also in the popular imagination.

Luigi Galvani The idea that animal's bodies were vessels...

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