Adonis Diaries

Archive for May 9th, 2016

Another greatest of scientists of the 19th century: Alexander von Humboldt

In A superb biography, Andrea Wulf makes an inspired case for Alexander von Humboldt to be considered the greatest scientist of the 19th century.

von Humboldt was the last great polymath in a scientific world which, by the time he died in Berlin in 1859, aged 89, was fast hardening into the narrow specializations that typify science to this day.

Yet in the English-speaking world, Humboldt is strangely little-known. That is partly because polymaths are out of fashion.

But it is also because Humboldt suffers, given the legacy of two world wars, from having been German. In 1869 thousands marched in Ohio to celebrate his centenary.

Fifty years later, German books were burnt in a huge public bonfire in Cleveland, while in Cincinnati Humboldt Street was renamed after that mediocre president, William Howard Taft.

Once, Humboldt seemed to be on everybody’s lips; his portrait even hung in the palace of the King of Siam.

Born into an aristocratic Prussian family, he showed an early and insatiable curiosity for the natural worlds “perpetual drive”, he said, as if chased by “10,000 pigs”.

As young men he and his brother, Wilhelm, were lights in Berlin’s intellectual circle which, though admittedly small, included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

But always Humboldt was consumed by Fernweh, a longing for distant places.

His misery was to be “too good a son”. A cold and distant mother (his father had died when he was young) had strict ideas about what it meant to be a member of the Prussian elite.

In 1790, at 21, he was all set for a career in the ministry of mines. Then came Humboldt’s jubilee with the death of his mother and a generous inheritance.

Alexander von Humboldt, polymath, died on May 6th 1859. He had an insatiable curiosity for the natural world, a “perpetual drive” for knowledge that felt as if he was being chased by “10,000 pigs”

Suddenly vistas opened; the dutiful son did not even attend his mother’s funeral. Resigning his position as a mining inspector, he rushed about Europe buying meteorological instruments and the necessaries for conducting electrical experiments.

He sought knowledge of astronomy, botany, geology and zoology. Above all he sought a destination: Greece, Lapland, Siberia, the West Indies, even the Philippines—in his excitement, it seemed not to matter where.

In the end the French revolutionary wars then consuming Europe and spilling out into the North Atlantic narrowed the options.

With Aimé Bonpland, a talented young French botanist whom he had met in the corridors of their rooming-house in Paris, Humboldt headed on a Spanish frigate for South America. He was, among other things, fleeing the ghost of his mother, which was by now preying on his filial guilt.

In July 1799 they landed in Cumaná on the coast of New Andalusia, in modern-day Venezuela.

Humboldt’s five years of travels with Bonpland in South America made his reputation. The red-blossomed palm trees, the pink flamingos, the blue-and-yellow crayfish—there was so much to catch their attention that they ran around “like fools”, he wrote.

They pushed on up a tributary of the Orinoco until they found a route to the Amazon, confirming that the two great rivers shared a watershed. And they inspected volcanoes: on Chimborazo they climbed higher than anyone had done before: 19,413 feet (5,917 metres), according to the barometer they carried.

They returned to Europe to a hero’s welcome, their cases groaning with specimens; 2,000 new species of plants alone, which was astonishing given that only 6,000 had hitherto been recorded. The account of their travels, “Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent”, eventually ran to 34 volumes.

One, Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative”, became a bible to young scientists, dreamers and adventurers. His was an unabashedly emotional response to nature. Intuition was paramount.

At a time when scientists saw their duty as chiefly taxonomic—stuffing things into ever narrower categories—Humboldt’s genius was to see the interrelatedness of things—in particular the link between plants, climate and geography.

Nature was a web of life. He introduced the idea of vegetation zones slung around the globe; he also invented isotherms, lines of equal temperature.

He was the first person to be alive to man’s ecological impact—for instance, the effect of deforestation on patterns of rainfall and soil erosion. In Latin America these effects were amplified by the slavery Humboldt witnessed and to which he remained implacably opposed.

Humboldt’s human connections were as fecund as those he made in the natural world. He was friends with Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolívar.

His conversations glittering stream of knowledge—was legendary in Europe’s salons. Budding scientists worshipped him for the encouragement he gave them.

Eventually, and only with extreme age, did his endless monologues come to grate on listeners. By then Humboldt, a lifelong republican who depended on Prussia’s absolute monarchs for a stipend, was weighed down by his chores at court and by having to answer so many letters—as many as 4,000 a year from admirers that he was obliged to take out a newspaper advertisement begging “the people of the two continents not to be so busy about me”. Soon after, he was dead.

Yet, and here Ms Wulf is especially good, his ideas enjoyed an afterlife.

On the day of Humboldt’s death, Charles Darwin wrote to his publishers to say that the first chapters of his “On the Origin of Species” were nearly ready; the passion and precision of that revolutionary work owe a huge, acknowledged, debt to Humboldt.

Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, America’s two most influential naturalists, shared both Humboldt’s wonder for the world and his conviction that knowledge could, in his words, never “kill the creative force of imagination”.

Ecologists today, Ms Wulf argues, are Humboldtians at heart. With the immense challenge of grasping the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach is more relevant than ever.


This charlatan magician that is life

We want to believe we had  a dream,

As a kid, reckless, careless, cheerful, forgetful

We must have had a dream, everybody says so…

We cling to that forgotten dream,

Gone with the wind for mysterious reasons.

Now adult and mad, for never recalling what was this beautiful dream

And we create another delusional dream,

Weaved out of and around the skills and talents we scrambled feverishly to acquire and boast of.

And we go crazy, seeing the world in black and white,

Struggling to be convinced that a dream must be an all-right world

Fighting the Great Evil, the Great Satan, master of all the wrong values

And we commit the most absurd acts of violence

On these criminal elements, poisoning our dream value system,

And we go on rampage,

Carrying banners of the most idiotic arbitrary concepts


We blame our disillusion on these chaotic and vile realities that is life,

This “foul dust

Fooling us on a full moonlight

Watching this staircase, a ladder to heaven,

Perched up high to suck on the pap of life

Gulping down the incomparable milk of wonder…”

Along the way, we missed

Streaks of happy moments,

Failed to observe the real people

Characters rich in complex reality of life.

Along the way, we got lost, and we missed

To empathize with the pain, frustration of all the others’

Diverse dreamers of all kinds of “illusory dreams“,

Just like ours…

This foul dust amidst our chimeric failure,

To whatever we convinced ourselves we were after.

And we are getting old, really old,

And we reach this famous conclusion that

It was all illusion, a drama we played on this comical stage

As if we ever started with anything more than a delusional dream.

Loss of the illusion,

This heavy baggage that grown-ups carry and nurse

To enjoy this acrid taste:

Licking our self-made wounds

The hero who wants to end a martyr

For all the dreamers of a better world…

And we missed the reveries, sources of our impossible imagination,

We missed the fact that the rock of our world

“Was and should be founded on  a fairy’s wing

Note: Borrowed a few sentences from Fitzgerald novels

Two-thirds of the country’s babies are born to unwed mothers: Iceland

A unique culture of single motherhood

Americans, Iceland can feel like another planet, and not only because of the moonscape lava fields.

There are fewer people in the country than in Staten Island, the air is so clean that you can see for many miles on a good day, and several of the bankers who brought the country to the brink of collapse in 2009 have gone to jail.

Without the drastic cuts being imposed upon Europe’s other troubled economies, Iceland has experienced solid economic growth over the past few years. (The economist Paul Krugman contends that the country is some kind of economic miracle.)

It is also, in many respects, one of the most socially advanced countries in the world: having topped the World Economic Forum’s rankings for gender equality for the past six years, Iceland has become known as the most feminist country in the world.

One sign of this egalitarianism can be found in Icelandic attitudes toward motherhood.

In contrast to the competitive, anxious parenting of middle- and upper-class Americans, there is an ease to being a mother in Iceland, at least among the native population. This can be explained, in part, by the fact that Icelandic parents receive extensive social benefits, including nine months of paid leave to be shared between parents and affordable preschools.

Most people also have networks of relatives available nearby to pick up the slack. Lacking “stranger danger” fears, eight-year-olds are encouraged to cross roads to play at the playground, or walk home from school without adult supervision.

As almost all Icelandic mothers work, there are no “mommy wars,” and few women seem to suffer from the overwrought desire to “have it all.”

There is also relaxed sexual morality: two-thirds of the country’s babies are born to unwed mothers—the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births in the world—with couples often having children together and then getting married, or deciding not to.

The distinctive culture of single motherhood in Iceland forms the subject of a new series by the Canadian photographer Annie Ling, who first travelled to the country last winter, on an artists’ residency.

Ling has so far photographed six women—three who live in Reykjavík and three who live in the north of the country—spending time in their homes observing their lives and their interactions with their children. Ling, whose work was recently shown in an exhibit, entitled “Independent Mothers,” that opened in Akureyri, Iceland, on June 19th, the country’s hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, says that she became interested in Icelandic attitudes toward single mothers, especially as they compare to those in the U.S.

The six women she has photographed are teachers, artists, and students. Two of them have five children with three different partners; one is raising two autistic children on her own. “These women aren’t getting judgment from the outside,” Ling said. “So, because they’re accepted, they’re much more at ease in their situations.”

At the same time, the reality of Icelandic women’s lives is more like that of American women than first meets the eye. Over the past few years, women have gone public with allegations of sexual abuse, including against a former foreign minister and the former bishop of Iceland’s state church.

While new laws against gender-based violence were recently passed, the criminal-justice system has been slow to respond, and young women this year turned a Facebook group on “beauty tips” into a twenty-five-thousand-member forum for sharing stories of abuse.

Despite its egalitarian culture, Iceland has a gender wage gap among the highest in Europe, leaving female-headed households with too few resources. Striking nurses, almost all women, were recently forced back to work by an act of parliament, with wage increases that did not come close to the contracts given to doctors, who are mostly men.

Ling’s stark portraits capture some of these tensions as well. Single mothering may be less fraught in Iceland, but the women she photographed are not what we Americans would see as comfortably well off.

You can see the independent mothers living in nondescript apartment blocks, in chock-full homes, in a sparse landscape—not easy lives, but full ones. “This one mother I photographed had had a pretty hard day when I showed up,” Ling said. “She told me this guy she was dating had broken up with her. Her mom was in the hospital, so she was on the phone with her. She was feeding the kids, bathing them, putting them to bed, and then heating up food at the end of the night.”

The photograph Ling captured shows the woman, Katrín, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two living in Reykjavík, standing on a chair, delivering a plate of food to a microwave wedged on top of the fridge. “I caught that moment of exhaustion,” Ling said. “It was kind of incredible.”

A new series by Annie Ling focusses on single motherhood in Iceland, where two thirds of babies are born out of wedlock.|By Janet Elise Johnson. She teaches political science and women’s studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. She is a coördinator of a monthly workshop on gender and transformation in Europe at New York University.




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