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One of the most important scientists of the western tradition, and about whom we in America know little, is Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a Prussian polymath who amazed contemporaries like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Charles Darwin, and Simon Bolívar, the South American liberator.  Our ignorance persists despite the hundreds of appearances of his name, around the world:  the Humboldt Current, the Humboldt penguin, Mare Humboldt on the moon, Humboldt County in California, Nevada and Iowa, Humboldt University in California, Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt in Cuba, Alexander von Humboldt National Forest, Peru.

Andrea Wulf, author of five books of science and history, sets out to help us see and appreciate the man and his work in  The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015)

The first half of the book introduces the man, the amazing reach of his mind, his indefatigable energy, his voluble presence among family and peers. For five years he trekked in South America, often with only a companion or two, no supply chains or hi-tech outdoor gear.  He showed that the mighty Orinoco of Venezuela and the even more mighty Amazon were connected by a natural canal called the Casiquiare. His almost complete ascent of 20,702 foot high  Chimborazo to a height of 19,286 feet, without ropes or boots, but plenty of altitude sickness, remained a mountain-climbing record for nearly 30 years.

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