Alexander von Humboldt: Why Do We Find His Name All Around the Globe and Even on the Moon?

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

Let’s start at the beginning. There are several special reasons I wanted to read this new Humboldt biography.

Humboldt in South Amaerica

A portrait of Alexander von Humboldt in South America (detail, 1806) painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1758–1828). The original is displayed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

When I was still teaching German, my high school in Reno, Nevada participated in a student exchange with a school in Berlin-Köpenick. The Berlin school’s name was Alexander-von-Humboldt-Oberschule. (Now it’s the Alexander-von-Humboldt-Gymnasium.) Our Reno-Berlin GAAP exchange took place in 1995/1996. (I also conducted earlier GAAP school exchanges in Freiburg.) I’m pleased to say that AvH still has an ongoing GAAP exchange with a high school in Texas. There are also secondary schools bearing the name Alexander-von-Humboldt-Gymnasium in Bremen, Hamburg, Schweinfurt, Neuss, and other German towns and cities.

Humboldt’s name is also found on many schools at all levels all across Germany and in many other parts of the world. I even have a rather tenuous tie to the Colegio Humboldt, a Germany-sponsored K-12 private school in Puebla, Mexico. I once visited the school and knew a teacher there. The Humboldt school in Puebla – with classes in German and Spanish – was founded in 1911.

I live in Nevada, a state that also features the name Humboldt on a river, a county, and a ghost town. Humboldt was also one of the names considered for the state when the Territory of Nevada was seeking statehood in the 1860s, a fact mentioned in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature.

Today Alexander von Humboldt’s name designates towns, parks, counties, mountains, rivers, an ocean current, capes, bays, a glacier, a geyser, and even landmarks on the moon. Who was this guy? Why did Andrea Wulf write a new biography about him? Continue reading

Max Raabe in Reno

Max Raabe in Reno

An illuminated sign inside the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno announces coming attractions, including Max Raabe.

Although his first big hit song in Germany, “Kein Schwein ruft mich an,” was in 1992, I didn’t become fully aware of Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester until I was living in Berlin in 2007-2008. After hearing him on the radio, I bought one of his CDs and enjoyed listening to tunes from the 1920s and ’30s – and Raabe’s wry, light-hearted approach to a repertoire of songs rarely heard over the last 80 years or so. He regularly performs live in Berlin and other German cities, although I missed his June 2008 open-air Waldbühne concert in Berlin.

I knew that Raabe and his orchestra had also performed outside of Germany in places like New York and Tokyo, but the last thing I ever expected was to see him on stage in my hometown of Reno, Nevada. Las Vegas or San Francisco maybe, but Reno?

So a few weeks ago, while watching a PBS TV broadcast of a 2009 concert by Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester at Berlin’s Admiralspalast theater, I was a bit stunned to hear that Raabe was going to perform in Reno on April 10, 2011. I immediately went online to buy tickets for my wife and me. Continue reading

Gambling and other sins

When I first moved to Nevada (the year shall remain vague) the Silver State still had pretty much of a gambling and quickie divorce monopoly – and a reputation as a rather sinful place. Today almost every US state has casinos and/or a lottery. Getting a divorce has become so easy these days, there’s really no need for a Reno or Las Vegas divorce. “Sin City” is now about as sinful as Disneyland.

Nevadans were once proud of their “sinful” status, but now about the only exclusive “sinful” thing Nevada has left is legal prostitution. Even that may be doomed if US Senator Harry Reid has his way (although one Nevada lawmaker has proposed a new tax on prostitution to help solve the state’s budget crisis). Of course the fact that prostitution is illegal in the other 49 states doesn’t mean there’s no prostitution there.

Yes, I DO have a Germany-related point here.

I recently wrote an article about casinos and gambling in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Among other things I learned in my research: Switzerland didn’t even have casinos until after 2000; while most European countries have gambling casinos, the real money (for the tax man) comes from lotteries. Continue reading