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Blues of Many Skies

Joyce Chaplin: Alexander vonHumboldt, 21 February 2019

Selected Writings 
by Alexander VonHumboldt, edited by Andrea Wulf.
Everyman, 840 pp., £15, November 2018, 978 1 84159 387 6
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... unveil heaven’s darker nature. His highest reading was 39 on the scale. The Prussian scientist Alexander vonHumboldt, who carried the instrument with him on his travels, took a reading of 46 during his ascent of Mount Chimborazo in the Andes in 1802. The diagram of Mount Chimborazo from ...

As if for the First Time

James Sheehan: Alexander vonHumboldt, 17 March 2016

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander vonHumboldt, the Lost Hero of Science 
by Andrea Wulf.
John Murray, 473 pp., £25, October 2015, 978 1 84854 898 5
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... He was​ the greatest man since the Deluge.’ This assessment of Alexander vonHumboldt by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, which Andrea Wulf quotes in her fine new biography, may be a slight exaggeration, but it reflects Humboldt’s extraordinary reputation among his contemporaries ...

Great Man

David Blackbourn: Humboldt, 16 June 2011

Nature’s Interpreter: The Life and Times of Alexander vonHumboldt 
by Donald McCrory.
Lutterworth, 242 pp., £23, November 2010, 978 0 7188 9231 9
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... Alexander vonHumboldt was once called the last man who knew everything, the last generalist before an age of specialisation definitively set in. His work ranged across geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, climatology, chemistry, astronomy, demography, ethnography and political economy ...


Christopher Tayler: Alain de Botton goes on a trip, 22 August 2002

The Art of Travel 
by Alain de Botton.
Hamish Hamilton, 261 pp., £14.99, May 2002, 0 241 14010 2
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... is even more concise, discussing as it does Huysmans, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Xavier de Maistre, Alexander vonHumboldt, Ruskin, Burke, Wordsworth, van Gogh, Edward Hopper and the Book of Job. Of course, when de Botton dissects the writings of, say, Schopenhauer, he’s only interested in the ‘consoling and ...

70 Centimetres and Rising

John Whitfield: Plate tectonics, 3 February 2005

The Earth: An Intimate History 
by Richard Fortey.
Harper Perennial, 501 pp., £9.99, March 2005, 0 00 655137 8
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... America fitted under the bulge of West Africa, something that the explorer and natural philosopher Alexander vonHumboldt had remarked on a century earlier. Humboldt believed the match showed that the Atlantic Ocean was a flooded valley; Wegener tried fitting the continents ...


Michael Neve, 8 November 1990

The Double in 19th-Century Fiction 
by John Herdman.
Macmillan, 174 pp., £35, August 1990, 9780333490242
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Romanticism and the Sciences 
edited by Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine.
Cambridge, 345 pp., £40, June 1990, 0 521 35602 4
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Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion? 
by Mary Boyle.
Routledge, 248 pp., £35, September 1990, 0 415 04096 5
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... it and, as it were, getting nowhere before at last getting to the madhouse. The life of Heinrich von Kleist, discussed by Nigel Reeves in Romanticism and the Sciences, was exactly fashioned around this collapse. Reason was revealed to be a fraud, the world a perverted madhouse, peopled with spectral doubles, doubles emanating from a multiple and ...

Saintly Resonances

Lorraine Daston: Obliterate the self!, 31 October 2002

Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England 
by George Levine.
Chicago, 320 pp., £31.50, September 2002, 0 226 47536 0
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... annals of 19th-century science overflow with testimonies to the powers and pleasures of the body: Alexander vonHumboldt (echoed by Darwin) exulting over the sublimities of tropical landscapes, James Clerk Maxwell affirming the muscular knowledge derived from experiment, dozens of hardy travellers (including ...

I and I

Philip Oltermann: Thomas Glavinic, 14 August 2008

Night Work 
by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn.
Canongate, 384 pp., £8.99, July 2008, 978 1 84767 051 9
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... fictionalised double biography of the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the natural historian Alexander vonHumboldt; less obscure than Lasker and Schlechter, but similar cases of fierce intellect paired with social awkwardness. As a writer, Glavinic too is more interested in elegance than solutions. He is an ...

Echoes from the Far Side

James Sheehan: The European Age, 19 October 2017

The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 
by Richard J. Evans.
Penguin, 848 pp., £12.99, June 2017, 978 0 14 198114 7
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... The 19th was a century of letter-writers: as well as extraordinary correspondents like Alexander vonHumboldt, who is said to have written more than fifty thousand letters in his long life, millions of ordinary individuals could now send one another messages easily and economically. The British postal ...

Lumpers v. Splitters

Lorraine Daston: The Weather Watchers, 3 November 2005

Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology 
by Katharine Anderson.
Chicago, 331 pp., £31.50, July 2005, 0 226 01968 3
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... as important for scientific ontology as they were for data management. The great German naturalist Alexander vonHumboldt brilliantly synthesised the local with the global in artfully coloured and coded maps that showed the distribution of characteristic forms of vegetation (e.g. pines v. palms), thus creating what ...

Ghosts in the Picture

Adam Mars-Jones: Daniel Kehlmann, 22 January 2015

by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
Quercus, 258 pp., £16.99, October 2014, 978 1 84866 734 1
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... theme, the precariousness of rationality. The evenly matched subjects of Measuring the World are Alexander vonHumboldt, born 1769, geographer, naturalist and explorer, notably of Latin America, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, born 1777, hardly less prodigious as a mathematician and inventor. At first the structure of the ...

Almost Zero

Ian Hacking: Ideas of Nature, 10 May 2007

The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature 
by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase.
Harvard, 399 pp., £19.95, November 2006, 0 674 02316 1
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... years ago, an unintelligible frontispiece to a book published in 1807. The great German naturalist Alexander vonHumboldt came back from South America to produce a timeless masterpiece, The Geography of Plants; he had it prefaced with an engraving, a dedication to Goethe, in which a naked man with a lyre is lifting the ...

All the Necessary Attributes

Stephen Walsh: Franz Liszt, Celebrity, 22 September 2016

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar 
by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Stewart Spencer.
Yale, 353 pp., £25, June 2016, 978 0 300 18293 4
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... as the wife of a musician even greater than her father, while the second, the Princesse Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, more or less ran his life after 1848 when he completely abandoned giving concerts and set up as Kapellmeister to the court of Weimar. Hilmes’s account of these two central relationships is one of his book’s strong points. He gives space ...

Flowery Regions of Algebra

Simon Schaffer: Pierre Simon Laplace, 14 December 2006

Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Determined Scientist 
by Roger Hahn.
Harvard, 310 pp., £21.95, November 2005, 0 674 01892 3
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... too: to the behaviour of light, heat and air. Staying for a couple of months in late 1802 in Lima, Alexander vonHumboldt grumbled about the city’s tedium, selfishness and indifference to suffering. Though he’d just climbed Chimborazo, then the highest recorded ascent, and happily surveyed the coastal guano ...

City of Blood

Peter Pulzer, 9 November 1989

The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph 
by Robert Wistrich.
Oxford, 696 pp., £45, June 1989, 0 19 710070 8
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Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938: A Cultural History 
by Steven Beller.
Cambridge, 271 pp., £27.50, August 1989, 0 521 35180 4
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The German-Jewish Economic Elite 1820-1935: A Socio-Cultural Profile 
by W.E. Mosse.
Oxford, 369 pp., £35, October 1989, 0 19 822990 9
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Decadence and Innovation: Austro-Hungarian Life and Art at the Turn of the Century 
edited by Robert Pynsent.
Weidenfeld, 258 pp., £25, June 1989, 0 297 79559 7
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The Torch in My Ear 
by Elias Canetti, translated by Joachim Neugroschel.
Deutsch, 372 pp., £13.95, August 1989, 0 233 98434 8
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From Vienna to Managua: Journey of a Psychoanalyst 
by Marie Langer, translated by Margaret Hooks.
Free Association, 261 pp., £27.50, July 1989, 1 85343 057 9
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... that great treasury of German science and literature, Lessing and Schiller, Goethe and Alexander vonHumboldt.’ German culture seemed doubly the culture of freedom: it was not only the language of human idealism, but the gateway out of the ghetto. Indeed language became a weapon – in the hands of the ...

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