Alexander Von Humboldt, Polymath and Renaissance Man

Alexander Von Humboldt, Polymath and Renaissance Man

According to Charles Darwin, the Prussian explorer, geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.” In fact, it was during his famed voyages in Latin America that von Humboldt cultivated his modern scientific concepts and ideas, which garnered him prominence within the scientific community at that particular day and age. The central idea scientific thinking was that absolutely nothing on our planet could be fully comprehended in isolation. Every living thing had to be understood in relation to other fields of science such as astronomy or meteorology. As we will explain later, von Humboldt’s thesis is not at all surprising, for the main reason that his scientific thinking expanded well beyond his respected field; consequently, he is now known to us as a celebrated polymath and the last Renaissance man in history.

When he was just a child, Alexander von Humboldt was known to his family and friends as “the little apothecary”, since he developed a penchant for collecting and labeling different types of insects, plants, and seashells. Already his all-around interests in various phenomena, which would widen continually during his early education, foreshadow his future polymath expertise. Von Humboldt studied finance for half a year in the University of Frankfurt; one year later, he enrolled in the University of Gottingen, where he was able to listen wholeheartedly to the lectures of the revered archaeologist C.G. Heyne and the naturalist J.F. Blumenbach.

It was shortly after he published his first scientific treatise that centered his passions on travel. Here, he befriended Georg Forster, now known today as the founding father of modern scientific travel literature. In order to prepare for his future travels, he then studied commerce and foreign languages in the University of Hamburg, geology at the University of Freiberg under the teaching of A.G. Werner, astronomy and scientific engineering under J.G. Köhler and F.X. von Zach, and anatomy at the University of Jena under the famed anatomist and surgeon J.C. Loder. The vast field of knowledge of this Renaissance man would widen even more when von Humboldt made the acquaintance of the botanist Aimé Bonpland, and together they set off for the uncharted territories of Latin America.

With his extensive knowledge on the physical sciences, von Humboldt, now in Latin America, was able to collect important data concerning more or less every field of natural science: archaeology, botany, geology, geography, oceanography and zoology. Because of his polymath manner of thinking, he was bright enough to harmonize all these different fields of sciences into a single, prescient thesis. This theory stated that everything in nature is interconnected. For instance, biology, geology, and meteorology (a science that von Humboldt founded), determined where specific flora and fauna grew; another example proposed that the continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean were joined long ago.

All these modern scientific views were to be published in a massive five-volume work called “Cosmos”, but Alexander von Humboldt, the last Renaissance man, died before he could complete it. However, his mark on science remains indelible to this very day.

Source by Mike R Hardcastle

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