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The Shakespeare of the Sciences
Alexander von Humboldt
Talks / Lecture
Alexander von Humboldt
14 September 2019
Join us for a special event to celebrate the many achievements of Alexander von Humboldt – a polymath, geographer, naturalist and explorer, and the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change.
On the 250th anniversary of his birth, the National Library of Australia will host a discussion with expert scientists to discuss von Humboldt’s impacts on the world of science and how they are still effecting leading experts today.
Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM, President of the Australian Association of von Humboldt Fellows, will introduce us to the life and work of von Humboldt, before our panel discusses the impacts of his work more widely.
On our panel:
Dr Judith Reinhard (Head, Science and Innovation - Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Australia)
Emeritus Professor Hans Bachor (Research School of Physics, Australian National University)
Professor Timothy J Entwisle (Director and Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria)
Facilitated by Lish Fejer (ABC Radio Presenter and Science Communicator)
Alexander von Humboldt The Shakespeare of the Sciences 140919
*Speakers: Stuart Baines (S), Gabrielle McMullen, Lish Fejer (L), Judith Reinhard (J), Hans Bachor (H), Tim Entwisle (T)
*Location: National Library of Australia
S: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Canberra spring. It’s fantastic unless you’ve got allergies, sorry about that. Welcome to the National Library of Australia, I’m Stuart Baines, Assistant Director of the Community Outreach Branch.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet. I pay my respects to their elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home.
I grew up on the lands of the Awabakal people and was privileged to attend a primary school where they recognised and valued the first nation’s people and exposed us to their culture. I’ve now lived and worked for many years on this land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I’m proud to be a part of a national institution that plays a part in sharing the collections, cultures and languages of indigenous Australians.
It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the National Library today to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt. Before the idea of this event came to us my staff and I have – had heard of Alexander von Humboldt in a very obscure way but we couldn’t have told you why or who he was. Perhaps many of you have that same response and perhaps not. I was certainly unaware of the valuable contribution he had made to science.
As we researched further we came to appreciate that von Humboldt was incredibly well known in the 19th century even in Australia. As you’ll see from several of the projected images this afternoon von Humboldt’s death was widely reported across Australia and even in the smallest of regional newspapers, demonstrating the regard in which he was held at the time by the general public.
To tell us more about the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt we are pleased to welcome Professor Gabrielle McMullen to the National Library. Professor McMullen is the former Deputy Chancellor of Academic Affairs at the Australian Catholic University. She’s also a former Alexander von Humboldt fellow and the current President of the Australia’s Association for von Humboldt Fellows. Please join me in welcoming Professor Gabrielle McMullen.
G: Thank you, Stuart, and good afternoon to you all. Talking about Alexander von Humboldt in 15 minutes or so is quite challenging but here we go. As you perhaps have just picked up from Stuart he was born 250 years ago today in Berlin. He was born into a well to-do and well connected family and with his older brother, Wilhelm, was educated by able and progressive tutors. Wilhelm is famous in his own right, he was an intellectual statesman and diplomat as well as founder of the Humboldt University in Berlin.
As a child Alexander was a collector of plants, insects, rocks, shells and the like, perhaps foreshadowing his future calling. Nevertheless marked for high public office at 18 years of age he was enrolled at the University of Frankfurt Oder and studied government administration and political economics. One semester later however he transferred to the University of Goettingen and here he spent two years focusing on sciences, mathematics and languages. Significantly at Goettingen Humboldt met Georg Forster who had accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific.
As a child Humboldt had read and been captivated by Cook’s journals. Lively conversations with Forster intensified Humboldt’s travel bug. Subsequently he relished four months of journeying through The Netherlands, England and France with Forster. While in England Forster introduced Humboldt to Sir Joseph Banks. He had been the botanist on Cook’s first voyage. This encounter led to a supportive scientific friendship between Banks and Humboldt. It’s worth of note that Forster was not only a prominent scientific traveller himself but also a significant figure in the enlightenment movement and in both spheres he influenced the younger Humboldt.
Humboldt’s intense curiosity, extraordinary memory and passion for travel were developing as a powerful combination. For example in 1790 he published a paper on the several types of basalt observed during a scientific excursion on the Rhine River. In this period he amassed a range of such experiences which would see him well qualified as a scientific traveller. He also developed his knowledge of commerce, languages, anatomy, astronomy and the use of scientific instruments. Further, he undertook academic and practical studies at the renowned mining academy of Freiberg in Saxony.
At the age of 22 years Humboldt gained a government appointment as a mining inspector and this gave him some scope to travel. He excelled in the role of mining inspector, increasing gold production, inventing safety equipment and for the miners improving their conditions, writing textbooks and opening a free school at his own expense. His diligence and capacity saw him promoted and also entrusted with diplomatic missions. At the same time he continued his scientific interests, undertaking plant research and dabbling in animal electricity.
With his developing profile he was introduced into the famous Weimar intellectual circle which included Goethe and Schiller. Humboldt continued to travel including undertaking a geological and botanical expedition through Italy and Switzerland in 1795. The next year brought a lifechanging development. This occurred following his mother’s death when he inherited the means to resource scientific travels and he resigned from the public service.
Humboldt went to Paris, a major centre of intellectual contemporary life. There he gained an invitation to join a five-year French voyage of exploration and was greatly disappointed when war led to its cancellation. Having met the expedition’s intended botanist, Aimé Bonpland, the two decided to set out together in search of other options. Arriving in Madrid they gained access to the King of Spain who was open to Humboldt’s proposal for a self-funded scientific expedition to Spanish America. Armed with the necessary authorisations and the best instrumentation of the day Humboldt and Bonpland set sail in June 1799 and spent the next five years exploring the Americas.
Their travels commenced in Venezuela, took them twice to Cuba, included an extensive period of exploration in the Andes and concluded with a visit to the United States. There Humboldt was received by President Thomas Jefferson. Humboldt’s exploration encompassed some 10,000km across Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, a 6,000m climb in the Andes to just below the peak of what was then considered to be the highest mountain in the world, collection of 45 crates of specimens, recording of ground-breaking data encompassing astronomy, biology, geology, meteorology and oceanography, some 4,000 pages of notes and travel diaries and expenditure of one-third of Humboldt’s inheritance.
The impacts of Humboldt’s travels were profound. As well as the scientific knowledge distilled from the scientific data sources and applications thereof his travels made available ethnographic studies into the ancient civilisations of Spanish America, social research on the Spanish colonies, mineral surveys, assessments of agricultural and mining production and their improvement and improved maps. Jefferson would acknowledge Humboldt as the most scientific man of the age.
In August 1804 Humboldt returned to Europe with one legacy of his expedition, an international scientific reputation. He was a 19th century superstar. Another legacy were publications written for both scientific and wider audiences, the latter transporting readers into Humboldt’s Adventures. Ultimately 30 volumes disseminating his observations and their interpretation were published over the rest of his life consuming the remainder of his fortune. Thus while Humboldt had been working from Paris he needed to relocate to Berlin in 1827 in order to take a salaried post. On his return home Humboldt missed the intellectual stimulation of Paris but he did not rest on his laurels. He offered popular free public lectures which were then immortalised in his last major work, the five-volume Cosmos.
He also furthered his interests in terrestrial magnetism which led to a change of magnetic and meteorological stations across the globe including one erected in Melbourne by his devotee, Professor Georg Neumayer. As exemplified by this initiative Humboldt promoted free exchange of knowledge and his project was one of the earliest examples of international scientific collaboration. Humboldt continued to undertake travels in Europe but only one other major expedition, in his 60th year to Russia.
He and his party traversed over 15,500km by coach in eight weeks. The journey’s focus was to assess mining prospects for the Russian Government. While travel was too rapid to be profitable scientifically Humboldt did gather some comparative data for his later works. Further, his observations corrected an exaggerated height estimate for the Central Asian Plateau and predicted the discovery of diamonds in Ural gold washings.
This gifted man also had the ability to draw, a talent which enabled him to generate visual records of his observations and illustrations for his publications. With maps and diagrams Humboldt sought to present complex information in an accessible manner. His illustrations were enhanced by a significant contribution based on his observations of temperature, pressure, humidity and flora and fauna against elevation. Thus informed by his research into the geographical distribution of plans he introduced the concept of isotherms, lines on a map connecting the points of same pressure. He similarly instituted isobars to connect points of the same pressure. Humboldt’s studies into climatology included early works on atmospheric disturbances and recognition of comparable climate zones across continents and flora and fauna distributed accordingly with the conclusion that nature was a global force.
His magnetic studies demonstrated the decrease in the earth’s magnetic field in moving from the poles to the equator. He also discovered that the earth’s magnetic equator was some 800km south of the geographic equator. Thus Humboldt was a major impact on the evolution of a number of sciences, in particular physical geography and meteorology. Key to this were his mastery of relevant, contemporary instrumentation, his painstaking collection of wide-ranging datasets and his studies of flora and fauna in-situ. His insights led him to a recognition of the sciences’ interconnection and to the promotion of a holistic view of the natural world, the unity of nature.
His quantitative methodology is characterised as Humboldtian science. In line with his view of nature Humboldt advocated for artistic travellers to present scientifically accurate nature painting. They were to be precise natural historians. His wide-ranging studies and integrated view of nature enabled this visionary thinker to develop an ecological understanding that recognised the interconnectedness of life on earth. In 1800 he provided the first recorded description of human-induced climate change.
In South America he saw the impacts of colonisation, namely deforestation for the introduction of agriculture with consequent soil erosion and altered climate conditions. Linking social and economic factors with environmental factors he highlighted the importance of forest to the ecosystem. Humboldt also spoke out against other social issues such as slavery and colonialism. Familiar with the repressive Prussian state he sought to promote a more democratic society.
During his life and ever since honours have been bestowed on Alexander von Humboldt. European and foreign academies and learned societies elected him to membership. More species have been named after him than any other individual. He’s also recognised in geographical and astronomical features and the names of places and institutions.
Humboldt’s travelogues inspired the youth of his day. Australian explorer, Ludwig Leichardt, wrote that Humboldt was one of those men whose deeds sounded like legends to the boy, filled the youth with rapture and finally drew him to a similar direction. Young scientists looked up to Humboldt and sought to emulate him. Renowned Australian botanist, Dr Ferdinand von Mueller stated Humboldt’s works inspired me to contribute to the investigations of the realms of nature, drove me as well with endless longing to distant places.
Similarly the young Charles Darwin had read Humboldt’s personal narrative. He indicated that without Humboldt’s influence he would not have undertaken his Beagle voyage or written on the origin of the species. Darwin described Humboldt as the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived. Through his publications, prolific correspondence, accessible lectures and lively personality Humboldt profoundly influenced the scientific community of his day. He also generously supported and mentored young colleagues. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation which similarly fosters young researchers is thus aptly named in his honour.
Humboldt died in Berlin in May 1859, his 90th year and was honoured with a state funeral. Innumerable tributes were paid to him both in the new and old worlds. For example in Melbourne the German community held a dinner to honour him. With the passing of this great polymath came the end of a scientific era when you could hold all the world’s knowledge in your head and to a time when science was hardening into specific disciplines.
That phenomenon on specialisation and increasing Anglo-Saxon dominance were reasons why Humboldt generally faded into obscurity outside Germany. A more significant cause was anti-German sentiment arising especially from the two world wars. However it was already evident in Australia in the 1880s when Germany was developing as a colonial power in our region and also evident during the Boer War thus an event like today which reminds us of Humboldt’s significance is of particular importance and I congratulate the National Library of Australia for this initiative.
If Humboldt were with us today I think he would have much to say about contemporary environmental and climatic issues. He would likely home in on the fires in the Amazon Basin and in the engaging lecture style for which he was renowned admonish us for failing to heed his environmental forewarning issued in 1800. Thank you.
S: Thank you, that’s fascinating, fantastic and what a visionary man Alexander von Humboldt was and bonus lesson on how to leave the public service. Great.
I’d now like to invite our panel to the stage so if you’d like to come up and take your seats. We are streaming today’s event so it’ll be live on our Facebook feed so if there are things you miss today you can go back, log into our Facebook page and you can watch this event all over again.
So today’s facilitator is Lish Fejer, presenter from the ABC radio, Canberra. Lish has a particular interest in science having previously been both a science communicator at Questacon and host of ABC TV’s Carbon Cops. Joining us on the panel today are Dr Judith Reinhard, Head of Science and Innovation with the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Australia, Emeritus Professor Hans Bachor of the Department of Quantum Physics at the Australian National University and Professor Tim Entwisle, Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Victoria. Please join me in welcoming our guests today.
L: Thank you, Stuart. Welcome, everyone. I did my own little pop quiz when I was asked to do this and I asked everyone I knew if they had heard of Alexander von Humboldt and it came back negative, no-one had heard of him and I thought how did we get to this point, as I read about him, how did we get to this point that I’ve never heard of this amazing scientist? Can I just have a show of hands of who had heard of him and knew quite a lot about him? Okay, we need to convert the crowd out there because maybe my research methods are poor. But –
A: [unclear] 20:41.
L: So this adventurer, this polymath, this scientist, this self-funded man had so much to tell us and stored inside his brain. I thought looking from a modern-day perspective I thought he has the influence of a Kardashian, really, he was so connected, so good on his networking. He had the self-funding nature of Elon Musk and so the funds to match his fabulous plans. He has the brains I think of Brian Cox, I think many more beyond, maybe Stephen Hawking, we can put that in, and the communication skills of David Attenborough so that superstar power that you spoke of really is very evident.
So I want to know why is the greatest scientist we’ve never heard of in Australia and I'm sure we’ll uncover that today but I wanted to start with our guests here to ask them what first engaged them in Humboldt’s story, why they are sitting up here as experts of Alexander von Humboldt and share with us your journey.
J: Well I’m happy to start. I’m a scientist by training so naturally I’ve – and German so naturally I’ve heard of von Humboldt but I think not so much his science, what really fascinates me is his personality and what – how relevant many of the things he’s done still are today. We already mentioned his networking skill, he was an amazing networker. I mean if he had social media he would be a social media superstar with way more followers than Kardashian. But he had – his address book had the addresses, the contacts of 900 people and this was in the 19th century so this is like LinkedIn, the 500 plus person, he knew everyone and he used his networking skills very well for his own personal interests. He was a smooth operator, he knew very well how to talk to Kings and Tsars and Presidents everywhere but he never trod on too many toes. A little bit with the conservatives but he managed to keep his political opinions often also to himself so he could use his network for his interests which of course were for science.
But not only for himself and what I really love about him, his generosity towards the young people, towards the next generation. He used this network to advertise jobs, to promote people, to get them jobs at universities. He recommended his [Yusoslevic] 23:34 and [Yusoslevic] now is a university in Germany. So he did all of this and this generosity is really reflected in the Humboldt Foundation, the network and supporting the young people and that is what Humboldt is for me.
H: Well for me the beginning is quite different. I grew up in Germany and I liked his adventures so you could read about him, about the stories, how he did his trips and discoveries and you could just sort of see yourself exploring a new continent. That’s from a German perspective. I think if I had been in Australia at the same time I would have probably read about Australian explorers so why would you read about Humboldt in South America if you have these amazing stories about Australian explorers? We all know about Cook and Banks and the Anglo-Saxon connection is there.
The second phase was when I was invited to go back as an Australian at the time to Germany as a scientist, why would they pick von Humboldt as the name for this beautiful science network? So then you see that he was really the big connector as Judith has just said. I think in addition to what you said, Judith, he also acknowledged what he got from people so when you look at his last book, Cosmos, it’s all written by him but that’s after extensive correspondence. So did he test an idea? Yes, he would write to the expert in the fields, see what they meant and integrate that in his work and actually quote them as well. So there’s this style of referencing other people, testing new ideas that made him great.
Now just to add to that I brought the modern view of the world, we can do this now, this is obviously -
L: The whole world.
H: This is done by satellite photography, this is what the world looks like, you can play with it and you see green parts which are important, you see white parts, clouds, blue parts, oceans so that’s actually what we know now. Wouldn’t have Humboldt loved to have an image? He tried to create that in our mind for his later works, The Cosmos, to actually show that this is all interconnected from the tiniest little insect and plant to the whole way how the atmosphere works. That’s what I admire him now most, that he made that big transition to the whole thing.
L: You can have a look, you can examine. Hans made me do it.
H: We’ll bring it back later.
L: The whole world in his hands. Tim, what got you started?
T: Well I come at it slightly differently probably, I don’t have the German connection and I knew the name, I knew of him. As a botanist I’d heard of him but it was only in the last few years – in fact reading the book by Wulf, by Andrea Wulf, I got so excited just – it is a fantastic book and I will recommend you do buy it if you haven’t. I not only bought it in hard copy, I tend to read electronically these days but I did one thing I’ve not done for ages and ages, I scribbled all over it. I kept getting excited and putting exclamation marks and I think what appealed to me as a personality, as a per – he’s just a fascinating individual and a teacher and educator but also he brought together all different parts of sciences as we’ve heard about already. I think it’s very current, I think it’s something that we’re returning to today where we’ve become specialised, we’re now looking with some of these big questions like climate change of bringing all the sciences together and not only sciences but the cultural and art element to it as well.
Working in a botanic garden where we – before I read the book we were looking at how we bring nature and science and culture together. We’ve got an observatory, we’ve got a herbarium that has science, you’ll see herbarium specimens behind me I think at times collected by Humboldt. How do you bring all that together and then how do you engage people with that? Using art and using lectures and talks and getting people to think about things. I read all that in that book and I got so excited that I engaged with this person and then – I must say before I came today I also spoke to Professor Rod Home who’s an expert in Melbourne University who’s written about him and his connections to Ferdinand von Mueller. Ferdinand von Mueller who we’ve heard about already was the first Director of the Botanic Gardens and he was a huge fan, he was just besotted with him. His first publication on Australia plants he sort of had a little dedication or a little quote from Cosmos at the start of it and his whole sense of adventure came from Humboldt. He likes his theories, he wrote about his theories but when he was really pushed Mueller said it’s because it gives me that sense to go out and discover and see the landscape and get out there amongst it.
L: Thank you, Tim. But it strikes me that it wasn’t – when he went on his journey it wasn’t hedonistic travel, he went there – he spent a lot of his inheritance but not on the pursuit of hedonism, it was the pursuit of knowledge, it seems. Even - that previous slide, that was of the cross-section of the mountain he climbed in Ecuador.
H: Now that’s a very unusual slide. If you think about it there are peo –
L: There’s one here.
H: People were looking at details but they didn’t make the connections, they didn’t make the connection between one mountain range, let’s say South America and North America and Europe and this idea of plotting where the temperatures are similar, plotting where the pressure is similar. These were all new concepts so this is a different way of looking at big [fractions] 29:26, not just the detail. I’ve no idea where he got that from but he was amazingly systematic.
J: Himself, this is what –
L: Can we explain it? ‘Cause you say where did he get that from? This was original paintings.
J: That is one of his big legacies. He might not have made unique discoveries like evolution, things like that but his legacy really is this holistic thinking and I think it is extremely relevant just as you’ve already alluded to. What we’re looking at now is we have so much data out there, the big data science, the what’s called systems analysis for the scientists among you is where we’re heading now. We’re looking how everything fits together, especially also in the health and population health sector, not only your genetics but your environment around you, all this comes together. We have new tools now, poor Humboldt really just had his pen and paper and some instruments to measure things. Now we have the big computers doing all of that but it’s the same kind of science that Humboldt in a way started.
T: I’d add it’s also really well grounded and the other thing I remember reading about Mueller’s interest and he – one of the things that Muller was doing that wasn’t being done back in England at the time was looking at the plants in their natural habitat and examining where they grew. The scientists back at Kew Gardens, they got huge herbaria, they had these dried specimens and you did all your taxonomy, your classification based on those pressed specimens and that’s what was very scientific and very guided by those whereas Muller got this idea from Humboldt that you needed to be out there and experience it. So I think it’s not only bringing everything together but it’s also – we tend to in science these days get very focused on what we’re looking at now, our lines of evidence but if we’re working on a little chemical thing going on, to think about where’s that chemical sit? What plant, what animal’s that in and to take a step back and look at that connection which I think he did wonderfully.
L: Yes, Hans.
H: Just thinking but he’s different to the four people you mentioned like yes, we have people who make big pictures, we had them at the time but they might have been in a philosophical domain, they might have been in a religious domain. I think what is important here, to go out there first himself to find the data, to find the information and everything goes back to the original observation which is fundamental to what science does. So that’s I think sens – I mean Banks did the same but he didn’t do the analysis, I think, later on, you might correct me. Other people thought big but they didn’t do the data sampling and didn’t make the drawings.
L: He did all.
H: He did it all.
L: The measurements he took like to trudge up – reading his list of equipment that he took up the mountain, not singlehandedly, mind you, he had a few animals to help him and lots of –
J: Twelve thousand horses.
H: Twelve thousand horses.
L: So he had a bit of help.
H: That’s over the whole expedition.
L: Over the whole expedition.
H: Not at the same time.
L: Not all the way up to the top of the mountain. So altitude, air pressure, refraction, electrical appearances, humidity, soil quality and plenty of other scientific parameters that I – what is a cyanometer? What is that measuring? Anyone know?
T: Something blue-green but I don’t know.
L: Blueness of the sky?
A: Blueness of the sky.
L: The blueness of the - he measured the blueness of the sky like there is big data.
H: Yeah, he didn’t say it was hazy, he had numbers for it but that’s the difference, he has numbers for it rather than saying it was hazy which is what you could learn from that.
T: He’s often described as the first ecologist and I think in a way – an ecologist these days does observe not just the – they’re taking all those measurements and I know – again I don’t want to harp on Mueller but he – I think he loved the idea that you go out with different instruments and probably – you could imagine kids these days do a few – you tell them you can go out with a thermometer, this and this, that makes it really fun whereas if you just go out and stand there and look at it, well. So it’s actually that connection and taking the measurements so I think it’s the start of – I agree with Hans, it’s about that – it’s a scientific approach and we don’t always see that and it was cumulating data and Darwin was very, very similar and very inspired by him in a sense of Darwin, before he did his theorising accumulated huge masses of data and he was not willing to do anything in theory until he understood all the data or had the information.
L: That’s when you look at this sort of infographic here, the detail in the data he collected is immense but you can look at it just as a fantastic picture, don’t you think? Like from someone who can just say that is brilliant, a cross-section of a mountain and I can explore and go with him on that journey up the mountain as he treks up and see what he discovers and what he measures. So I can delve into it and get lost in it as much as I want or take away just the big picture. So I guess from a communications perspective he was incredible as well and when you talk about all his inspiration that he handed on like – what could we learn I guess from the way he communicated around the threats that we currently face, what he communicated then and how we communicate it now?
H: But first of all there were about 20 years so he didn’t immediately communicate so these details came out very quickly but that he kept on thinking, corresponding, refining, testing and then 20 years later he – roughly from memory – that was the first volume and then another five years was the last volume so maybe we should take a little bit more time and learn from that as well and test our ideas and - so spend a whole lifetime on this process as he did.
J: That’s so nice.
H: I know.
J: I think unfortunately many scientists and younger scientists nowadays, they just don’t – they’re under pressure, you need a job, you need to earn money –
H: And publication.
J: - and he had a very big inheritance and even once he used it all up he had a brother who put him up and helped him along. I don’t think - yeah, the science communication is something crucial again today. A lot of students, and this is a big thing, many of you might have heard about the three-minute thesis competitions created here in Australia, now all around the world where young scientists and researchers are trained how do I communicate my findings to the public? How do I get them excited about this? Humboldt did this perfectly not only through his later lectures but even during one of his travels while he was there he bumped into an American journalist and he made damn sure that this journalist put a note about Humboldt and his travels in all the big American newspapers and this is how the American Presidents found out about him.
So you promote yourself, you promote your science in all of this and I think an important part that comes out of it, people admired him, he was a superstar. People looked up to him and trusted his finding and has science and this is something we all struggle with right now and I would hope we have someone like Humboldt who reinvigorates the trust in science and scientists, also in some of our politicians, especially in climate science.
L: Your thoughts, Hans, Tim?
T: Hans, go.
H: Can it be a single Humboldt nowadays? I fully agree with you, Judith. Times have changed a little bit so we probably need more a community of people but the trust to me is the core feature. If we lose the trust in the quality of the information that is actually being used then we can hardly communicate so to me that’s the main feature. Will there be another Humboldt? I think probably not because we know so much more, that is a much more detailed image, we need more instruments but we can work towards that goal that he achieved at the time.
T: I think the other thing I picked up too is the stories he tells and the communication is not just about having a good big theory and it’s about having – and the fact that he spent five or six years actually travelling, being in the place means you can talk about it with authenticity and you can talk about the detail. I remember reading he counted the number of flowers on a tree and there were 44,000. But funnily enough I remembered – I’m putting myself way down below Humboldt here but I was out in the garden the other day and I was thinking how many flowers are there? I came to a million in the end. I didn’t count to a million, I must let you know, I broke it into little squares and I think I was way, way off.
But when I went back and I started talking to this to people in the tearoom the next half hour everyone was talking about flowers and plants and how many – why would you have so many flowers here? Why not just one big flower? It’s kind of the – that’s what gets people thinking and I get that sense from him and the way he communicated, that it was having that richness of detail, having connected with it but also knowing the stories to tell.
J: I think if he had social media and Twitter, in particular he would have had, we would get lots and lots of Tweets from him every day.
T: He’d be the Trump of today.
J: No, he’d be insightful, important Tweets.
T: The anti-Trump.
H: Which might actually be few important messages than many not so –
L: Did he have critics? Talking of – did he have critics and what were they critical –
J: I know only one anecdote, that he talked a lot and it was hard to get a word in so that was –
T: I know Darwin met him when he was older and he said he spoke too fast, he talked a lot and I don’t think Darwin got a word in and that – I don’t know if people criticised him for this. I know he gave taxonomists a bit of a hard time or not a hard time but he was a bit dismissive of people who classified plants. I know there’s – there was probably a tendency from some people to think he was – and we get this today when you’re a jack of all trades and I expect that some of those people and probably these botanists sitting in Kew would be thinking oh well Humboldt’s out there doing that but we’re actually going through our herbarium one by one and we’re doing the proper work here so I suspect that would be there.
H: Yeah, it would have been probably experts who would be most critical because whenever you try to paint a bigger picture, to do a synthesis, some detail is sort of lost. I mean that’s just – has to be like that. There will be people saying did you do that properly? Did you actually lose it in the wide way or did you distort it? So there would have been scientific discussions but critique of that nature, it’s absolutely essential to science, I mean that’s part of science, it’s actually testing it. So did he have people criticise him? Yeah, plenty but they were other scientists and something more solid emerged out of all of that.
L: Not the public and politicians as we now see the inverse, don’t we? Rather than – sometimes there’s a lot of criticism around the – not criticism per se around the science but questioning around –
H: Look, there was a lot of politics at the time, we don’t talk about that at all. What happened in Russia, what happened in France and Germany and Spain. We heard a little bit about how complicated it was for him to organise that expedition because he needed letters from the King of Spain in those days because it was South America. I don’t know how well he got on with politicians at the time, maybe he just avoided them, I don’t know.
J: No, he did interact and he was very progressive and liberal. I mean Gabrielle mentioned the fact that he was anti-slavery etc and this did not exactly win him friends in certain conservative circles so there was conflict but he was a smooth enough diplomat, he was a trained diplomat just like his brother was, to be able to navigate this and still have the support of his science.
T: Napoleon didn’t like him apparently. He made some remark about – I wrote it down – when they first met, you are interested in botany. I know my wife, Josephine, is also occupied with it.
J: That was dismissive.
L: What a putdown. He was restless like you describe how adventurous he was, Hans, and how that really drew you to him. There’s a wonderful turn of phrase he uses, I think. He felt like he was chased by 10,000 pigs. I suspect many scientists – certainly those in - climate change scientists might feel the same sometimes to explain the urgency of the situation, that sort of rush to get everything done and the limited lifetime that he had. How do we take all that knowledge that he gleaned over the years and the processes that he put in place and put it into today’s context?
T: Well I think there's a couple of ways. Probably Hans and others will have other thoughts but one, I think you should see science as a bit of a progression so each scientist fits into a bigger thought pattern if you like. The work he did on vegetation and the classification vegetation, things have moved on since then and we now look at area – we have historical or analytical biogeography and we look at areas of what we call endemism where things grow and only grow and we compare those. We’re looking at an evolutionary history which wasn’t part of his thinking but his ideas of classification and looking at patterns which were being mentioned before around the world became the basis for some of these areas which then evolved and turned. So when I – I read a history of that field just recently and it starts with Humboldt and then you sort of track it up through to today so I think you see his ideas and his seeds and his thoughts as providing inspiration but also some of the questions that people have then followed up on later.
H: He did a lot of work – not officially so much that you read in the sources but he lived together with his brother, Wilhelm, his brother, the diplomat, the statesman, the founder of universities. They would have discussed these things in great detail and so this vision of education as a pillar for the society. You go to university for education, you learn about a variety of fields and this wasn’t just job training, this wasn’t just preparing for whatever you wanted to – and however you wanted to earn your money. That is still in the German education system, in some of the European education systems. So that’s a contribution of him we can also learn from now is the value of a broad but factual knowledge beyond your immediate interest, dibbing into other fields and learning some of the facts from other fields. That was very central to what he did and it survived and I think we can foster that and make it grow again.
J: I think I agree. I’m glad you raise the Humboldt ideal or the Humboldt model of education as it’s known, you can all look it up in Wikipedia which is mostly credited to his brother, Wilhelm, but I'm sure he had a contribution. Really believed in educating the middle classes because before then education was of course only for the rich aristocratic class but the Humboldt brothers really believed in education and like Hans mentioned it should be broad and I do want to quote something which I find beautiful. They said that certain kinds of knowledge of a general nature, a certain cultivation of the mind and the character that nobody can afford to be without and they really mean nobody and this is this broad education and they said this must be achieved thorough schooling, through universities.
Vocational skills can be acquired later on and a person is free to move from one occupation to another in life and they do so frequently. This is something that I was fortunate enough to go to university in Germany where high education is free and I had a lot of time to not just study neuroscience and biology as I did but took language classes, philosophy etc but this is the luck of the draw going to this university nowadays. If you are a student here and you have to pay you go in there for your one degree and you make damn sure you get it in time because it costs you money and I find this quite sad. You’re so pressured to have a career and to finish your degree quickly so you can pay off your loans, we’re creating very narrow young people and I do not know what the solution to this is but I do hope that panels like this at the National Library of Australia can help people and hopefully some politicians re-think.
L: ‘Cause when he returned – we’ve spoken about he came back with this whole idea around the interconnectedness of nature and that’s not new to us now but back then it was new, so new. He came back with this knowledge that also we have the power to destruct that and to really upset the balance quite easily and of course the first examples of human-induced climate change, how would he look at the situation we find ourselves in today and apply his lens while looking through his lens? What would you say?
H: Oh he would love the instruments we have so from that point of view I think he would revel in all the opportunities to make photos like that, to actually reconstruct. How would he think about forecasting? I think that’s something he sort of couldn’t really do, I mean it wasn’t advanced enough to be quantitative to say these are the trends, this is what we see for 10 years, for one generation, for several generations and we can do that now and that’s part of the big problem we have. Is that a belief? Is that based on facts? What do we do about probability? The likelihood that this will happen and how do we react?
I think he would have a fun time to get involved with the opportunities that technology would give him now, probably do something holistic again but based on much more detailed and widespread information from outer space looking at earth, from within the earth. I think he would be right in the middle.
T: But I think with the synthesis of ideas that we were mentioning before too. If you look at the way we approach – I talk about biogeography, where plants and animals exist today and the history of how they got there. We now put layer upon layer and we get animal data and plant data together and we try and find patterns and we bring them together, there’s a – I think he would welcome the sort of scientific rigour that’s been added to that too. So we get the data then we analyse it and then we – we’re looking for a pattern and then we go and look for other organisms to do the same thing. So that richness of approach I imagine he would find quite exciting and it’s taking some of his fundamental ideas and really stretching them further.
When it comes to the way we treat the planet it is interesting. It’s always hard historically, isn’t it, to put your mind to there and now and again I sort of reflect on Mueller who was coming after him and he sort of read and he made some very strong ecological statements as a Director in terms of – he saw destruction. Interestingly he saw bush being lost in Australia but on the other hand he was head of the Acclimatisation Society and he let loose blackberries and all kinds of things so there’s different aspects to personality.
But I think – but even then Mueller felt that he was – that was Humboldtian to him, actually. I’ve read somewhere that you can sort of see that – almost this looking at the country as a whole, there should be fruits to pick and there should be songbirds and he was trying to create this country and so in a way it was again that big overarching experiment so it was his own way of interpreting it. So today we would look at it differently and we would be using some of the Humboldt ideas I think to make sense of where we are now.
J: I think he would have been quite frustrated today because I know he was – the restlessness where this driven curiosity and he went on and on and on. I would not have liked him as a supervisor, I tell you, I mean I don’t think he got much sleep. So I think he was even frustrated then because the more he discovered the more questions he had, the more he wanted to know and luckily he lived to nearly 90 years, he had a lot of time to do all of this. But still even he felt overwhelmed how much there was to know and to discover and with all the new technology and the new data and I think he would have been frustrated that he can no longer do it all by himself and be the one person who can do it all. He would have really needed close collaborators from a variety of fields.
H: Yeah, I think he was a [unclear] 51:36 clearly where it just got bigger, more detailed, more available. You couldn’t do it with 900 entries into your personal diary, you need ICCC and that’s a very different, bigger, slower and complex system but he would have – I think he would have done well with his diplomacy in guiding but he would have been frustrated he couldn’t do it himself.
J: As a scientist.
H: As a scientist.
L: Hans, I know you’re interested in the way he analysed so we see his fabulous adventures and we know for five years he really was an explorer and he really put his body on the line, didn’t he? He self-experimented.
J: Yeah, when he climbed up the mountain he was curious to find out at which stage he was going to fall unconscious so –
H: Keeping records, I’m still here, I'm still here.
L: Therefore he didn’t quite make it to the top –
J: No because there was no oxygen mask.
L: That’s right and he had to stay able to read his instruments and get the record. Also the electric eels, I was reading a – can you – anyone know – tell us the story of the electric eels?
J: I don’t like electric eels.
L: You don’t like electric eels?
H: Well they do exist, they’re pretty powerful so you get quite a shock and yes, he wanted to measure. He didn’t have the instrument yet. The magnetic measurements were very good like the same thing you do for a compass so I think that probably drove him, he knew about the magnetic fields of a compass and he was curious how that changed. But the electric one just came literally as a shock to him and they do exist and they’re still quite a force to reckon with when you encounter them so they zap you like a good electric fence.
L: How he managed to get an electric eel to look at.
T: Well exactly and – but as you say putting his life on the line and also the hardships of travel at that time and the amount of data. If you just look at the plant world which is my kind of interest, I suppose, but he and Bonpland collected 60,000 sheet specimens from their travels and these are – you’ve got to press each of those and look after them and bring them back. So even though – it’s interesting, as someone who was observing everything he did, make sure he – he was working with another botanist but they got that material, took it back and very meticulous in getting all the detail. So it’s not just swanning around sort of waving your hand with an instrument and taking a measurement and going back to camp and your day’s done, there’s a huge amount of work goes on.
H: That’s where the horses come in, all the boxes of –
T: That’s right.
H: - it was carried through –
L: Tim, you mentioned him as the father of ecology and he went on when he went to America and he met Jefferson and then that whole movement around protecting the natural environment spawned from that with John Muir and the national parks. Can we explore that a bit? How then that changed our thinking on a big picture level of the environment.
H: Yeah, I think that was a transition to go from beauty of nature to an awareness how things are connected and other values. I mean just the earth as a living body. I mean another word – he struggled, what should I call it? So he came up with cosmos which we now use in a very different way, we think about cosmology as out there, not here. Gaia was the other word, John Lovelock, of a philosophy that the earth is actually a living organism and I think that started – ideas like that led Muir to national parks, to preservation, that there’s something out there, that it’s not just passive nature, beautiful things to look at but a big living organism that needs support and protection. We have that as an environmental movement right across the world, not always winning but it’s there and it’s lively and it’s probably our survival strategy.
L: What about his linking of humanities and science? That really changed the way –
J: I think we often forget during these five years in South America he of course didn’t only look at plants and animals and mountains, he also interacted a lot with indigenous populations and he was again very progressive. In his diaries you can find a lot of anecdotes and notes. I remember one about mosquitoes, they were terribly bothered by mosquito bites and he was writing how some of the indigenous people slept buried in the sand up to the neck so they wouldn’t get bitten and he was fascinated by that. He was very progressive for that time, he perceived these indigenous cultures just as cultures different from his own but not more nor less. He did observe how the indigenous cultures preserved and looked after the environment and this is where some of his ideas of environmental protection also came from.
T: It does connect back to that – I don’t know whether you call it – it’s not so much spiritual but poetic and that connection with humans and culture that comes through in his approach like even the visualisation and that diagram of the mountain and everything. It represents something scientific but it also represents a beauty which you mentioned before.
J: The art.
T: The art of it and –
J: Very talented.
T: - that brings us in and gets the emotional hook and I think coming back to him as a communicator, that’s as important so the data is there, then you’ve got to engage people and connect them somehow and he does that through that. I think that has great relevance today and a lot of scientists and a lot of science organisations are looking at art as a way of – not so much explaining concepts but bringing the concepts to people to sort of experience in some way. He does that – that visualisation of the mountain is just a really evocative way of looking at what he’s talking about.
L: Now I’ve spoken to several people whose initial discovery of Humboldt was the maps and his illustrations ‘cause they are so compelling. They’re the original internet, you can just get lost in them for hours. Emerge much more knowledgeable, I suspect than spending hours in the internet. I might open up the floor to your questions now ‘cause no doubt there are many. We do have a hearing loop in the room so I might just get you to wait until the microphone comes to you before you start asking your question ‘cause yeah, these are good folk to ask –
A: Good afternoon, is it on? Okay. I appreciate your distinction between the specialists that were occurring even then and what von Humboldt did although he had to collect some of his own data. In the discussion about how he would react today the word frustration was used and I can appreciate what that meant. Today we have increased specialisation, subspecialisation pushing down, down, down into the detail. The role of the synthesist seems to be important there as you’ve mentioned. How do you think we appreciate the role of the synthesist these days where specialists tend to be more readily recognised?
H: I think we do appreciate it. Because we have such specialisation I think what is happening is that you have to hand over your knowledge from one to the other and so you need mechanisms how to do that, you need – and Lish is a science communicator by training and so we have actually a professional science communication who then talk to scientist and the scientist that might be who synthesise who then talk to the experts. So I think nowadays it’s more about again the trust, that we trust to hand over your knowledge to the next level up of generalisation. That might be a negative word but it’s synthesis and then up to communication and we have fantastic people at – all out at that level but as we both observed, Judith, it gets very competitive so handing over knowledge to someone else might be against what gets you the next promotion or job. So I think that is the tension I’m seeing. We have the method but are we promoting it? We should do more on that.
J: Yeah so cooperation is vital, nowadays even more so because you have all these specialists work together to solve the big questions but within cooperation there’s always also competition.
T: I’d add to – and I think, Hans, you mentioned this earlier – the courage when you’re a generalist to take those chances and to talk and make a small mistake sometimes to make the general pattern. I think that’s a really tricky thing to do at the – it has actually got harder to throw ideas out there, to have them float around, to test things out so we are getting generalists come in and we’re doing that through things like climate change. But they’re looking for the faults and the gaps and the critical detail whereas you need the courage and the capacity to smooth things over and generalise. I think that’s really hard in journalism and in science generally to be allowed to explore new ideas I think is getting tougher and is actually a bit harder – well it is harder than it used to be.
A: Thank you very much for your enlightened discussion today about a genius. I wondered how accurate his measurements are and representing as he does figures from preindustrial times how much information does he have in terms of comparing present day global temperatures or the movement of species up and down mountains? Is that being used in any way by modern scientists today?
T: Well in terms of biological data it is. I mean his observations and his collections and his looking for links, he’d see lichens growing at certain points in mountainsides so there are two ways of looking at it, I suppose. Things have changed since then so some of those plants for example are not there anymore so we now have records of where they were and that’s true probably of any collector of the time. But then his observations around groupings of plants and associations of plants, we’ve refined those so I suppose the point I was making earlier is his ideas have then led to further development and those ideas crystallising so we have changed them slightly. In terms of – but in the atmospheric and physical data I don’t know. Hans, could you –
H: Well I think people wouldn’t doubt what he measured and there’s always uncertainty to every individual data point so you have to be much more systematic. Fortunately what we can do now is actually travel back in time in various ways to reconstruct let’s say temperature fluctuations, sea level rises in a multitude of ways so not just for 200 years. So we have one data point from Humboldt but we could let’s say attempt 1,000 years or in some cases 10 or 100,000 years in quite different ways that he couldn’t envisage. So I think it’s just that he started it but his data points are so few that they don’t really contribute that much anymore to our total understanding. We have much more to give you an image now, what it is now, what it was and what is likely to happen in a decade or two.
A: This discussion obviously has a thread of anthropogenic climate change and so I have a two-part question. If you accept that the earth’s history has cycled through ice ages what do you think has driven the climate for one ice age [unclear] 4:19 to start the next one? This is over millions of years. The second part of that question is a test on yours or of – the breadth of your reading. In all your reading what have you read that might also cause climate change other than carbon dioxide?
J: Can I answer the last one? I do not know too much about the climate science, I leave this to you but other than carbon dioxide one other molecule contributing it even more so is methane and this is -
A: [unclear] 4:56 processes –
J: Okay well then I leave it to the experts.
H: So how would you conclude that it is actually human-driven? The observation we have is what is happening now, what we have recorded in the past including the humans.
A: Millions of years –
H: I know but the interesting effect about what we’re recording now is the short time span. There are million of years, there have been periods of high temperatures, there have been much higher sea levels than we have so yes, we know all of that. What is worrying us as a community of people looking forward into the future is the timescale for which we cannot find any of the explanations apart from the concentration which are no doubt much higher. There’s no doubt about the concentration of CO2 and other climate gases, I don’t think we need to go there. The question is what is their effect and why is it happening on the timescale of one or two human generations? None of the explanations we have, how this went up and down over tens or millions of years fits so I think to me and to the vast majority of scientists, if you don’t have any other explanation and all the models fit together that is what you should be using.
A: I find that a very unsatisfactory answer because we have [unclear] 6:41.
L: We’ll move on, thank you for your question. We’ll move on to another question.
A: Hi, thank you so much for your panel and for your talk earlier, it was very rich and I’m just loving it. I trained as an ecologist at the ANU, I had the great pleasure of going to the [Furniss] 6:57 School and I really loved Humboldt’s work, I referenced it really heavily in my own thesis. I was just wondering – and it’s interesting that you mention sort of John Muir and that sort of movement that some say started in Scotland or the US or whatever you want to say about that – I was just wondering what your thoughts are on the tension between the utility of the natural world as resources versus the – as you mentioned before the like innate beauty of nature and what we can get from connecting with nature on a more sort of spiritual level. If you – yeah, just wanted to make some comments on that ‘cause I find that tension very interesting. Thank you.
J: As a scientist this is beautiful. I love birds and I enjoy feeding my magpies and at the same time as a scientist enjoy watching them communicating with each other. So one for me doesn’t exclude the other, I can enjoy the beauty of nature and the wattles blooming and etc and at the same time thinking there are a million flowers in there. So for me that goes hand in hand.
T: I mean there’s also that other – I would agree with that and most people in science understand the beauty of what they’re working with and they get drawn to it often initially. But also – and I know it’s a little bit cliched but you – as a scientist, by discovering and understanding and getting to – that’s how you explore and it becomes quite a romantic relationship, I think, with the world where you’re discovering bits about it and you fall in love with kind of these processes and things. Scientists are very dreamy people and that’s – they’re not presented that way a lot. I think Humboldt’s a great example where you see the dreaminess come through. It might not be the right word but let’s use that one.
T: Romantic. I do think, tough, climate change is a good example where we can put the facts up and we can argue the case but a lot of the time it’s about the heart and it is – we talk about this as scientists and you can lay the facts out and there’s always – and I said there’s always dispute about particular elements and that’s fine, that’s what science is good at resolving eventually. But mostly it’s about getting the heart and getting people to understand and I find that in botanic gardens too, we strive to get the information across and the names and all that kind of thing but mostly we change people’s lives by just bringing them into a beautiful botanic garden and sitting under a tree where they might just sit and contemplate. We sneak some science in behind them while they’re not looking but really that can change their lives and that environment does as much as the – so I’m not discounting the science but you’ve got as a scientist be open to that other aspect.
H: I think trying to compare again, you mentioned the word utility. We need plants and animals for food and locally that was always well understood, in my backyard. With the population we have now we’re talking about food security, global food security and that’s just one case where we see that this interconnectedness which he observed - but he didn’t write about global climate change, I mean he just noticed that what people did affected locally what nature did. So he observed [unclear] 10:33 deforestation locally and what that might have to do with – he would say probably more the weather and the condition locally rather globally.
But with the big dominant species, human, we now look at interconnectiveness across the world and when we discuss food security we’re discussing how one continent can feed another continent, how people on one side of the earth can utilise it. In Australia the topic is water as much as food so we have manoeuvred ourself into a space where yes, we need to have all the aspects, the beauty, the emotions and the utility in the sense of how do we make that work with so much population?
A: I wonder if I can add some collateral to the argument? Maybe this is a comment rather than a question. There’s a book by David Epstein called Range which is in praise of generalists and attracts a series of generalists who in due course focus on different problems. Epstein found that these people were generally more innovative than the specialists and were better at seeing fresh solutions and delivering fresh ideas and of course he like you – he’s strongly against the idea of over-compartmentalisation, certainly as far as creativity goes. It’s fascinating to think, if we were ever to encounter aliens, whether it would be the specialists or the generalists who first made progress in understanding them and describing them to everybody else. Thank you.
A: Hello, thank you for your – both the address and the comments of the panel and I’d like to comment first on the introduction that there are so few people who know today who Humboldt was. Some 60 odd years ago at high school in New Zealand we were doing among other things climate, oceans and so on. Now – and a case study was this bloke, Humboldt, noticed and did some observations on the fact that off the coast of Peru the sea was a lower temperature than along the coast north or south but – and he didn’t know what it meant. He published the information and later, much later this amazing current was discovered that goes up the South American coast over – and is the basis today of El Nino – we know it as El Nino and La Nina. That also it has immense – that that current which is known today as a Humboldt current tells you something about the evolution of discovery, science and so on. It may not be as direct as I think has been questioned already about Humboldt so that – whether today in high school people learn about Humboldt I don’t know but I remember it in some detail from that so thank you.
L: Thank you, we got to bring him back, let me tell you, I’m going to start a campaign. Going to know him as much as we know Cook, maybe a few Banks and all our greatest –
T: But it’s interesting – just while we get the next question – I think these characters do sort of pass through our education systems and there are fashions and there we talked about the war and reasons for the Germans perhaps not being talked about so strongly. In Melbourne in about the 1850s there were I think three of the five institutions - scientific institutions were headed by Germans, people of German origin and there were others who were leading societies and it was a very strong culture in Melbourne yet we – again I didn’t learn that at school, I sort of picked that up later as well. It’s just interesting the things that we block out and the things we remember and we get told in education for various social and other reasons.
A: Thank you very much. I’d just like to make comment as well following on from the beauty of nature and the connection of Australia and El Nino and that is that people may not be aware that the artist, Eugene von Guerard, was a great disciple of von Humboldt. His painting reflected the ideas of von Humboldt in recording the minute detail of nature and if you see any of von Guerard’s paintings you’ll see that they are almost photorealistic in the amount of detail they have. But further to that it’s because of that amount of detail some botanists and ecologists have discovered that where land in Australia has been degraded, if there was a sketch or a painting by von Humboldt they were able to identify the plant life and to regenerate from the painting. So that’s a wonderful connection with Australia including the range of paintings that we have both here in Melbourne –
T: That’s a really good point and it’s one we should have made too, that the observation of that detail – the question at the back before too, the – that detail does become important and in Australia you’ll often – you’ll see too trying to look at vegetation before Cook and before European settlement here and there are very few – it’s very hard. The scientists are trying to work out what impact fire had, what impact indigenous people living on land for 60,000 years, how that all interacted and the observa – Banks’ observations are hopeless.
If you read his diaries it says there’s a green tree on the edge of – and there’s a bit of grass and you’re looking at every word trying to get some bit of science out of it whereas you get someone like Humboldt who’s drawing and putting detail, that sort of information and that’s more – I’m not putting Banks down as a scientist necessarily, he had other things on his mind but he was – it was really that detail and registering that made him a very good scientist as well. So we’ve talked about the art and the emotion and the romance but behind it, like Darwin, there has to be the detail and the science.
A: Hello. I too have enjoyed your presentation and the questions as well. I have the honour of giving a presentation of my own about Humboldt to the Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens at 12:30 on the 26th of September.
L: That’s very Humboldtian of you.
A: [unclear] 17:59 to Humboldt as a generalist from a different kind of background, a social scientist but I have an interest in cacti and succulents and having been in Berlin and seen at the time that they were starting to prepare the rebuilt Humboldt Palace which was going to be the Humboldt Forum and seeing up the top of a viewing platform the map that showed his voyages in Central America, thinking if he’s been there he must have seen a cactus and yes, I’m right. But you’ve brought together all sorts of things, the lovely comment here about the art informing the details of the botany has been exceptional.
I’ve also been delighted to find out about so many things that are happening at the moment worldwide about Humboldt. Germany is really buzzing with events right now and they hope to open the Humboldt Forum this weekend but things like construction delays and provenance problems and colonial restitution have all reared their ugly heads. But perhaps at the moment it’s because of the climate change interest. There’ve always been celebrations, we’ve seen details of them on the screen behind you, there’ve been postage stamps, and there’ve been bank notes that have come out every 50 or 100 years since he was born. Sculptors have had a field day for years putting together sculptures of him. It’s an exciting time and it’s wonderful because it informs so much of what’s going to be happening in the future with science and also the many related disciplines that Humboldt also recognised were important to look at as well.
L: Thank you. I think that might also wrap up this session but it’s only the beginning, really. You can read the five volumes of Cosmos, sink your teeth into that, be utterly fearless and endlessly curious. I think that’s what I take away from him, is just to keep asking questions, little ones, big ones, whatever ones and down whatever wormhole it takes you. That’s what I got from my adventures in Humboldt Land.
T: Can I add a little quick – we’re all going to have one, aren’t we? But he described his coffee as concentrated sunshine and for someone from Melbourne that’s really a lovely [unclear] 20:25.
J: I would just like to close by really thanking the National Library of Australia for putting on this event on behalf of the German Embassy, thank you very much. Humboldt was a great German. I would like to thank you all for your interest and I would in particular like to thank one person in the audience sitting here in the front row, Maryanne, who made it all happen. I got a phone call out of the blue a couple of months ago. I am Maryanne, I love Humboldt, we have to do something.
S: Thank you, everyone, for coming along. You are not the only one who got a phone call slash visit from Maryanne so don’t thank the National Library, thank Maryanne. She came with book in hand, passion in heart and fire in belly and said do you know who this handsome gentleman is? I had no idea and here we are today so thank you again, Maryanne. Can we all please thank once again all of our special guests, Professor Gabrielle McMullen, Dr Judith Reinhard, Emeritus Professor Hans Bachor, Professor Tim Entwisle and of course Lish Fejer.
S: This may surprise you but if you’d like to read more about the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt the National Library’s bookshop has stock. What a shock. Several of his books, details of his achievements and further so if you would like to buy one of those books 10% off those books today for you as our audience and please be aware all sales from the National Library bookshop actually help the National Library so yeah, great, pay me, that would be fantastic.
Thank you all for attending this event and we hope to see you again soon and thank you for all of our online visitors as well and hopefully people back in Germany watching today’s event. Thank you.
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