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Starr Center for the

Study of the American Experience

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Date: 5:30pm EDT October 13, 2015

A special panel discussion featuring: Eleanor Jones Harvey, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.; Neil Safier, Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library; and Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.

In her new book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf reveals the extraordinary life of the German naturalist and how he created the way we understand nature today. Humboldt was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, whether climbing the highest volcanoes in the world or racing through anthrax–infested Siberia. Perceiving nature as an interconnected global force, Humboldt discovered similarities between climate zones across the world and predicted human-induced climate change. He turned scientific observation into poetic narrative, and his writings inspired naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth and Goethe but also politicians such as Jefferson.

Wulf also argues that it was Humboldt’s influence that led John Muir to his ideas of preservation and that shaped Thoreau’s ‘Walden’. Wulf traces Humboldt’s influences through the great minds he inspired in revolution, evolution, ecology, conservation, art and literature.  In The Invention of Nature Wulf brings this lost hero to science and the forgotten father of environmentalism back to life.


Eleanor Jones Harvey is a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her research interests include 19th- and 20th-century American art, landscape painting, southwestern abstraction and Texas art. Her most recent exhibitions are The Civil War and American Art (2012), Variations on America: Masterworks from the American Art Forum Collections (2007) and An Impressionist Sensibility: The Halff Collection (2006). Harvey joined the museum’s staff in 2003 as the curator for the museum’s Luce Foundation Center for American Art, an innovative study center with visible storage. She was the museum’s chief curator from 2003 to 2012. Harvey oversaw the installation of the permanent collection galleries in 2006 after a major renovation of the museum’s historic landmark building. In 2008, she was a fellow at The Center for Curatorial Leadership at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She earned a bachelor’s degree with distinction in the history of art from the University of Virginia in 1983, and she holds both a master’s degree (1985) and doctorate in art history (1998) from Yale University.

Neil Safier is Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, with a joint appointment as Associate Professor in the Department of History at Brown University. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 2004 and has held teaching and research appointments at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and most recently at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is the author of Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America (Chicago, 2008; paperback edition, 2012), which was awarded the 2009 Gilbert Chinard Prize from the Society for French Historical Studies and the Institut Français d’Amérique. He has held numerous research fellowships at libraries and archives, including the Huntington Library, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, and has a wide collection of published books and articles, including essays in Isis, Book History, The Huntington Library Quarterly, and Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales (2011). His current research relates to the environmental and ethnographic history of the Amazon River basin, and the circulation of ideas in the Atlantic world during the age of revolutions. 

Andrea Wulf was born in India, moved to Germany as a child, and now lives in Britain. She is the author of several acclaimed books. The Brother Gardeners won the American Horticultural Society 2010 Book Award and was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2008. Her book Founding Gardeners was on the New York Times Best Seller List. Andrea has written for many newspapers including the Guardian, LA Times and New York Times. She was the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence 2013 and a three-time fellow of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. In 2014 she co-presented a four-part BBC TV garden series and she appears regularly on radio.

Book signing to follow.