Alexander Von Humboldt

Alexander Von Humboldt
“The Last Polymath”
Rhiannon Hewin

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Geography 10004/04/2018 Born,
Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander,
Freiherr (baron) von Humboldt (whom from this point I will refer to simply as Humboldt) was born on Sept. 14, 1769 in Berlin, Alexander Georg von Humboldt and Marie Elisabeth Colomb. The five years Humboldt spent in South America would later prove his proficiency in multiple disciplines and yielded the most fruit for his efforts.
Mapping the land (maps of mexico they say helped President Jefferson in his decision in making the Louisiana Purchase, suddenly being able to identify with the new neighbors down south) and other illustrations, climbing 19,286 ft up Chimborazo, only to miss the summit by less than 2000 ft, discovering ocean currents, that would later be named after him, climbing peaks-including every volcano, wading rivers, and crossing the Andean Highlands.
Unlike todays extreme outdoorsman, they had no GPS, no inoculations, oxygen was however much or little was in the air around them, not to mention sporting good stores still had about 150 years before making their debut. Despite the odds they conquered South America in 5 years. Returning with a treasure trove of over 60,000 specimens, climate data, cultural observations and electromagnetic experimental data gathered along the way-.
Not including what Humboldt sent home to his brother, Wilhelm, over the years.- which, thanks to the british navy, wasnt much. Humboldt would later find himself in North America (United States,) Europe, Asia and Russia.
Although his trek through Russia and Central Asia would be less of a 5 year trek and more of a 6mth long carriage ride, complete with royal bodyguards/chaperones, Humboldt was still able to work his magic and chart much of central Asia, which would be of great importance to the western world since very little existed prior to Humboldts findings about Central Asia.
Humboldts idea “Unity of nature” was that ” The combination of all physical science of a region determined what organism could live in that region.” He showed the relationships on maps as isothermal lines, comparing climate across countries and continents based on temperature latitude and elevation.
These isothermal maps would be the building blocks for the modern-day disciplines of climate science and meteorology. Humboldt challenged the ideas that man was the focal point of the universe and plants and animals wouldn’t go extinct (nor do they rely on each other,) claiming quite the contrary.
In fact, it was man who faced extinction due to “the destructions of forest, through the distribution of water and through the production of great masses of steam and gas industrial centers” adding “The wants and restless activities of large communities of men gradually despoil the face of the earth.” Ideas like these would’ve added environmentalist to his long list of accomplishments – had the term existed. Humboldt’s work in the field of demography are of enduring value.
He introduced “the examination of the quotient of extremes into population statistics, thus making it possible to supplement the abstract figure of population density by citing the low quotient in countries uniformly densely (or sparsely) settled and the high quotient in countries unevenly settled. He also made allowance for population dynamics, furnishing birth and mortality rates for Mexico. These figures were long unavailable for such regions” Humboldts efforts did not go unnoticed.
Humboldt was admitted to The Royal Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences, The American Philosophical Society, The New York Historical Society, The American Ethnological Society, The Prussian Academy of Sciences, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society.
With exploration complete he would not only spend the next few decades collecting his thoughts (and data) in order to share his findings with the masses but take a step back to smell the roses and other flora he was so fond. He enjoyed large gatherings and inspire young scientist to push themselves to be more than expected of them and to learn for the sake of learning.
He assisted those he could even if that assistance was using his influence around that particular city to get the scientist what they needed. Unknown scientist were not the only people he inspired. While working on his first works, Charles Darwin corresponded with Humboldt. The man who fought for the creation of Yosemite National Park, John Muir, 70 years after Humboldts death wished he “could be a young humboldt.”
President Jefferson had many conversations with Humboldt and even though Humboldt HATED slavery an couldn’t understand how Jefferson could own slaves while talking about freedom. Other Inspired (through conversation or posthumously) included Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost and George Perkins Marsh, who followed in Humboldts footsteps by throwing himself into the middle east taking samples and observing as he went..
German chemist Justus von Liebig as well as Swiss born zoologist Louis Agassiz owed Humboldt the means to continue their studies and embark on an academic career.
Humboldt was able to publish his findings in many different forms, but the 23 volumes based on his travels was one of the “most comprehensive ever published by a private individual” That said his final gift to the disciplines he loved so much would be Kosmos referred to by some as the most ambitious scientific works ever published, Kosmas gave a generally comprehensible account of the structure of the universe as then known.
He would see 4 volumes published but the fifth would be published posthumously. Written in a pleasant literary style, his excitement and aesthetic enjoyment at his discoveries are not withheld.Humboldt had taken immense pains to discipline his inclination to discursiveness, which “often gave his writing a certain lack of logical coherence” Hardly diminished, and with an unimpaired memory, Humboldt suffered a stroke in the middle of publishing his 5th volume.
On May 6, 1859, a few months shy of his 90th birthday, Alexander Von Humboldt was dead….but who says just because you died at 90 doesnt mean you can’t have a global 100th birthday party? On September 14 1869, worldwide concerts,parades and gatherings celebrated 100 years since the birth of a much-loved, highly revered scientist.
There were speeches and festivities in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Moscow and Melbourne. In almost every major US city, thousands attended concerts and parades.25,000 people gathered in central park for the unveiling of a commemorative statue and a torchlight parade. In berlin, where Humboldt was born and died, offices were closed for the day and 80,000 people came out to celebrate in spite of torrential rain.I admit, I had no knowledge of Humboldt whatsoever prior to this assignment.
However after a few weeks of reading everything Humboldt I discovered that my thoughts on his erasure from history is actually shared my many others. The first being that, thanks to him, the world got smarter. As people got smarter, science disciplines got more specific. People mastered those disciplines, and those were the people who we started to admire.
For example, everyone wears clothes, so much so, that most of us cant/couldnt live in a world without clothes. That said, an even bigger majority of us have no idea who invented clothing or when. However, names like Versace, Calvin Klein and Donna Karen-clothing designers, are well known today. The more obvious reason is the world wars and Germany’s role in them.
The hatred of Nazis became a hatred for Germans and the desire to erase them. A symbol of pain, hatred and death, part of the end game became burn all things German. As Schools burned, we cheered. As libraries burned, taking their past with them, we cheered. As the world started to heal, new up and coming Germans were accepted but none were returned to fame.

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