“The real discoverer of South America" - the Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt

14 September 1769, the Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin.

“The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion. These special departments in the great domain of natural science are, moreover, capable of being reciprocally fructified by means of the appropriative forces by which they are endowed. (Alexander von Humboldt, “Kosmos”)

The German painter Eduard Hildebrandt’s (1817 – 1868) capture of Alexander von Humboldt in his library

Usually, it is rather not a good sign for a man’s legacy, if a type of hog-nosed skunk is named after him. But shamed be he who thinks ill of it in the case of Alexander von Humboldt. And Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk is in the excellent company of penguins, orchids, oaks, river dolphins and lilies, all named after their discoverer during his epic expeditions in the Americas. And the five years spent between Orinoco and Rio Negro, from Cartagena to Lima and in Mexico, full of exploring the whats, hows and whys of Mother Nature’s workings that resulted in the publication of the largest private travel account in the history of science, 30 volumes, lead Simón Bolívar to call him “The real discoverer of South America ... since his work was more useful for our people than the work of all conquerors." The great liberator of Hispanic-America hit the nail right on the head.

Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus humboldtii)

During the life cycle of a civilisation, certain things can occur only once for a first time. Everyone following in the pioneer’s footsteps will suffer the fate of all Epigones. Some discoveries, in art, science and cognition, can be carved out of the primordial chaos only once. And even Humboldt himself was called a latter day Aristotle or a second Columbus. But his true merit, one that can be easily emulated through all ages, was his attitude of being a world scientist in many aspects. His thinking was aligned along the outlines of a comprehensive worldview where everything correlates and not limited to self-isolated disciplines or subjects or philosophies. Neither in science nor the suffocating ideological approach on thinking. His supra-national, time-transcending and, within the humanely possible limits, impartial method of interconnected science, laid down in an open-book principle permitting and enabling everyone to elaborate on his discoveries makes him a forward thinker of how and what a truly globalised science could be.

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