The Invention of Nature
John Murray (UK)
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World is a nonfiction book released in 2015, by the historian Andrea Wulf about the Prussian naturalist, explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt. The book follows Humboldt from his early childhood and travels through Europe as a young man to his journey through Latin America and his return to Europe. Wulf makes the case that Humboldt synthesized knowledge from many different fields to form a vision of nature as one interconnected system, that would go on to influence scientists, activists and the public.
Part 1. Departure: Emerging Ideas Wulf describes Humboldt's childhood with his emotionally distant mother. As a child his interests in nature and travel were not taken seriously. His mother, on whom he was financially dependent, insisted he become a civil servant. As a young man, Humboldt became friends with Goethe and other German intellectuals. His mother's death allowed him the freedom and financial independence needed to journey to the New World.
Part 2 Arrival: Collecting Ideas
Humboldt arrives in Venezuela with his companion Bonpland and begins his journey through Central and South America. He brought with him a plethora of scientific instruments. He chronicles his travels and the measurements he obtained using scientific instruments in his journals. Humboldt climbs Chimborazo, a volcano in the Andes, which was then believed to be highest mountain in the world. The trip concludes with his visit to the United States where he visited the White House to discuss science and politics with Thomas Jefferson before returning to Europe.
Part 3 Return: Sorting Ideas
Humboldt returns to Europe where he is greeted as a celebrity. He lives as an expat in Paris for seven months as he finds the city and its scientific culture more stimulating than that of Berlin. While in France, he meets a young Simon Bolivar, who is impressed with Humboldt's knowledge and passion for his home country of Venezuela, and they discuss South American politics. Humboldt returns to Prussia, to earn a salary in the King's court before returning to Paris. At this point he begins to work on several manuscripts based on his travels. The books are widely read. As Bolivar begins to plan and execute revolutions in South America, Humboldt publishes a series of books on the politics of Latin America that criticize colonialism.
Part 4 New Worlds: Spreading Ideas
Wulf discusses Humboldt's personal correspondence and influence on a young Charles Darwin, who attributed to Humboldt the inspiration for an interest in natural science leading to his voyage on the Beagle. Humboldt's influence on the American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau is explored. Humboldt's magnum opus Cosmos, where he talks of the interconnections of the natural world, is discussed.
Invention of Nature became a New York Times bestseller. Some critics felt that the book could have covered Humboldt and his travels more thoroughly instead of focusing on people he influenced. Others found that the book showed the relevance of Humboldt to our times. In September 2016, the book was awarded the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize
- "Best Sellers: Expeditions". New York Times. December 13, 2015. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
- Price, M. (2015, October 03). ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf. Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2015/10/03/book-review-the-invention-nature-alexander-von-humboldt-new-world-andrea-wulf/13dl6jtIkrrkkahAWtjvkI/story.html
- Winder, S. (2015, November 13). The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf – review. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/13/the-invention-of-nature-the-adventures-of-alexander-von-humboldt-andrea-wulf-review
- Rich, N. (2015, October 22). The Very Great Alexander von Humboldt. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/10/22/very-great-alexander-von-humboldt//
- Associated Press (2016, September 19). "Andrea Wulf's Humboldt biography wins Science Book Prize." Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/science/andrea-wulfs-humboldt-biography-wins-science-book-prize/ on 30 Sep 2016.
- "The Royal Society announces the winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016". Royal Society. 19 September 2016. Retrieved 9 March 2018.