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Humboldt

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 28 September 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. He was possibly the greatest and certainly one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century. Darwin described him as 'the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived'. Goethe declared that one learned more from an hour in his company than eight days of studying books and even Napoleon was reputed to be envious of his celebrity.

A friend of Goethe and an influence on Coleridge and Shelly, when Darwin went voyaging on the Beagle it was Humboldt's works he took for inspiration and guidance. At the time of his death in 1859, the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Humboldt was probably the most famous scientist in Europe. Add to this shipwrecks, homosexuality and Spanish American revolutionary politics and you have the ingredients for one of the more extraordinary lives lived in Europe (and elsewhere) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But what is Humboldt's true position in the history of science? How did he lose the fame and celebrity he once enjoyed and why is he now, perhaps, more important than he has ever been?

With Jason Wilson, Professor of Latin American Literature at University College London, Patricia Fara, Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, Jim Secord, Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project.

  • Further Reading

    Alexandre von Humboldt, Personal narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of America,[1825], abridged and translated with an introduction by Jason Wilson and a Historical Introduction by Malcolm Nicolson, Penguin Classics, 1993

    Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos, 1973

    Margarita Bowen, Empiricism and Geographical Thought: from Francis Bacon to Alexander von Humboldt, 1981

    Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: the Life and Times of Alexandre von Humboldt (1769-1859), 1955

    Ottmar Ette, Literature on the Move, 2003

    Edward Goodman, The Explorers of South America, 1972

    Nigel Leask, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840, 2002

    Charles Minguet, Alexandre de Humboldt: Historien et géographe de l'Amérique espagnole (1799-1804), 1969

    Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation, 1992

    Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life. Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, 2003

    "Humboldtian Science" by Michael Dettelbach in a book called Cultures of Natural History Ed. N Jardine, Cambridge University Press, 1996

    Nicolaas A. Rupke, Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography, Peter Lang, 2005

Credits

Presenter
Melvyn BRAGG
Producer
Natasha MAW

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