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