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Humboldt and the Cosmos [Paperback]

Douglas Botting

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Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), once described as the 'last universal scholar in the field of the natural sciences,' was one of the most extraordinary men of his time. Naturalist, botanist, zoologist, author, cartographer, artist and sociologist - but a few of the many talents possessed by this great scientific adventurer, whose influence is apparent throughout the world today. Despite an unpromising Prussian childhood and a tortured personal life, his single-mindedness and rare combination of talents drove him to become a scientific adventurer, spurring his five-year, six-thousand-mile scientific exploration of South America. During this remarkable trip, he explored the courses of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, mapping their tributaries and discovering and cataloguing many new species of plant and animal. He discovered electric eels in 1800, receiving massive shocks in the process. He mapped vast tracts of South America - many areas of which are named after him to this day - discovered the anti-malarial value of quinine, the worth of guano as fertiliser, and the importance of the ocean currents.

He studied electricity, invented the study of atmospherics and made great advances in the fields of astronomy, geology and biology. The renaissance man of eighteenth century science, Humboldt was, with the exception of Napoleon, probably the most famous man in Europe at the time, and inspired the young Charles Darwin on his own fateful journeys of discovery. Later in this extraordinary life, he founded the great Humboldt University in Berlin and wrote the legendary multi-volume Cosmos, in which he ambitiously attempted to unify all the fields of science. In "Humboldt and the Cosmos", world-renowned historian, Douglas Botting, looks at the man, what drove him, the age he lived in, and literally follows his astonishing journeys of discovery along the Casiquiare canal and the Upper Orinoco of Venezuela, in an attempt to do justice to Humboldt's range of achievements and their importance to the world today. Reissued in paperback, this is the classic biography of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science and exploration. It is an extraordinary adventure story written by a world-renowned historian.

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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, entertaining, thoughtful 8 Oct 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This is one of the finest books that I have ever had the great pleasure to read and enjoy. It is the story of Alexander von Humbolt (1769-1859)who was a famous scientist and one of the greatest men in history. One of the last truly universal men, Humbolt was personally acquainted with Goethe, Jefferson, Napolean, Josephine, Cuvier, Laplace, Frederick the Great, Pitt, Schiller, Bismark, Simon Bolivar, and so many others. But his personal acquaintenances are only part of the story. This was a fascinating and unique man who lived in a richly historical time, which this book sheds much light upon.
Humbolt was born in Prussia but spent much of his adult life in his beloved Paris. He traveled through parts of South America, Mexico, North America, Europe and part of Asia, making contributions to man's knowledge of science all along the way and becoming world famous in the process. Humbolt was a man of towering intellect, strong determination to succeed, and boundless energy. He laid the foundations for such fields as modern physical geography. Several terms he coined (such as "Jurassic") are still in use today and he wrote many thousands of pages in his books, including Cosmos, a monumental effort to describe a unified vision of the universe. As scientist and explorer, Humbolt left his name on the maps of 5 continents. There is even a moon crater named after him. He held the world high-altitude climbing record for 30 years.
Humbolt was also a kind, gentle man with liberal democratic views, a fondness for the principles of the 1789 revolution, a belief in the equality of all races, and a strong distaste for slavery. As a diplomat in troubled times, he worked for the benefit of both the strong and the weak. He was a dedicated patron and supporter of struggling young scientists and helped many, such as Louis Agassiz to survive in their early years even when he himself struggled to make ends meet. Humbolt was a man far ahead of his time in many ways and was justifyably admired by thousands all over the world.
Botting's treatment of his subject is respectful, at times reverential, and always interesting. The author also explores the contributions and lives of Humbolt's companions such as Aime Bonpland, and his brother Wilhelm von Humbolt.
The book is lavishly illustrated with a vast number of both color and black and white plates. It is hard to find but well worth the effort!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History, science and genius 23 Nov 2008
By Mary Carhart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I found Humboldt and the Cosmos in my local library. The story of this amazing man and the beauty of this volume blew me away -- I wanted it for my own bookshelf. Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769. At the forefront of emerging sciences -- geology, meterology, geographic exploration, he led a life of discovery seldom matched. This volume has historic, contemporary illustrations throughout -- etchings, paintings, drawings. Humboldt even drew his own self-portrait. Too many wonders in this book to describe in one review.
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