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Remembering “the Shakespeare of Science,” Alexander von Humboldt
Location: Decker Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts
CHESTERTOWN, MD—When German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) put forth a vision of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone, his ideas were considered revolutionary, if not radical. His theories significantly influenced America’s leading scientific and cultural thinkers of the day, including Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau.
Andrea Wulf’s new book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, reveals her subject’s extraordinary life and his role in creating the way we understand nature today. “It’s a story about exploration, it’s about danger, it’s about passion, it’s about science, and it’s about a new way of seeing this world,” says Wulf, who brings her multimedia presentation to Washington College’s Decker Theatre on Tuesday, October 13, at 5:30 p.m. At a panel discussion afterward, Wulf will be joined by Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Neil Safier, history professor and director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
The panel will discuss how Humbolt’s writings turned scientific observation into poetic narrative that inspired poets such as Wordsworth and Goethe, and how he shrewdly predicted human-induced climate change. A lost hero to science and a forgotten father of environmentalism, Humboldt packed his life with adventure and discovery, climbing the highest volcanoes in the world and racing through anthrax-infested Siberia. “His contemporaries called him the Napoleon of science, the Shakespeare of science — everybody knew Humboldt,” says Wulf.
Curator Harvey notes that Alexander von Humboldt spent only six weeks in the United States, but his visit sparked a lively exchange of ideas about science, art, literature, politics, and exploration that shaped nineteenth-century America. “His concept of Cosmos — of a web of life in which every aspect of the universe is in some way interconnected — shaped American perceptions of nature and, by extension, American cultural identity. Humboldt’s influence stretches to the present day,” she adds.
Andrea Wulf was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She lives in Britain, where she trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art. Her other books include Chasing Venus, which was published in eight countries in conjunction with the last transit of Venus. She has written for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times and the Guardian. She is a three-time fellow of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and the 2013 Eccles British Library Writer in Residence.
Eleanor Harvey is currently developing American Cosmos, an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum planned for 2019-2020, which will examine Humboldt’s impact on American art and culture. Harvey’s work often explores the intersections between American art, literature, and history. She is the author of several books, including The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church’s Arctic Masterpiece, and The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880. Her most recent exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, was a sweeping survey of the impact of the Civil War on American painting and photography.
Neil Safier is Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library and associate professor in the Department of History at Brown University. His current research relates to environmental and ethnographic history, and the circulation of ideas in the Atlantic world during the age of revolutions. His book Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America traces a 1735 Paris Academy of Sciences expedition to colonial Quito (present day Ecuador) and examines how South American culture contributed to the production of European scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment.
Free and open to the public, the October 13 event will include a book signing. Sponsors include the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, the Department of Biology, and the Department of Environmental Science and Studies. Decker Theatre is located on the first floor of the Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts on the College campus, 300 Washington Avenue. For more information about Starr Center programs, visit washcoll.edu/centers/starr/.