How is it possible for someone to study science for the better part of two decades and to only now hear of Alexander von Humboldt upon entering graduate school? Stephen T. Jackson’s short biography offered me a first glimpse of a man whose career spanned continents and scientific disciplines, and inspiring Darwin’s voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.
On Humboldt’s five-year sampling expedition in Southern, Central and North America, he and botanist Aime Bonpland sampled across a huge spread of disciplines – including zoology, botany, geology, and atmospheric science – and kept geographic records of each data point. Humboldt saw that by keeping track of where he made observations and measurements, he could relate those data points to each other as well as create a larger science to study the physics of the Earth. This would lead to integrated fields of science in modern times like biogeography, oceanography, and ecology.
My thesis work deals more with biogeochemistry and human interactions with nature instead of many of the other topics listed in the Darwin 200 PDF, which might be why I’m so inspired by Humboldt. Here’s a guy with an understanding of what was thought to be completely unrelated fields of knowledge and goes off on an adventure where he utilizes his knowledge of these totally different things and ends up methodically painting a bigger picture of how the world works. If nothing else, what a great model for study abroad trips!