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Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, writes Andrea Wulf in her thrilling new biography.
Editors note: In the photo above, then Bishop George Niederauer, who later became Archbishop of San Francisco, celebrates Mass at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, along with girls who perform liturgical dances on the altar.
Humboldtit, Humboldtilith, and, humboldtin ; Humboldt Limestone, Humboldt Oolite, the Humboldt Formation, the Humboldt Current; Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt; Mont Humboldt, Humboldt Mountain, Humboldt Peak, and Humboldt ranges in China, South Africa, and Antarctica; Humboldt Falls, Humboldt.The farther-flung diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, serving not quite one hundred thousand Catholics, has forty eight seminarians, at least two priests in every parish, no churches being shut down, and plenty of schools.But Purdys uncanniness can also be detected in new technologies, such as the use of genetic tools to bring back extinct species, create drought- and pest-resistant crops, and grow artificial human organs in a lab.If you place the stations of the Cross on the side walls, make them so small and ambiguous that no one can tell what they are from more than ten feet away.In New England, the colonists spoke of reclaiming North America from the wilderness, a project inextricable from the propagation of democracy.Description de lÉgypte, a twenty-three-volume study compiled by two hundred scientists what is a banana eating contest who had accompanied Napoleons troops during the 1798 invasion of Egypt.Wulf notes that nowhere in his five-volume magnum opus, Cosmos his attempt to summarize his thinking on the natural world, the universe, and the entirety of human historydoes Humboldt mention God.It is impossible to read.Concerns over air and water pollution, land development, resource extraction, species extinction, drought, wildfires, and even roadside littering were consolidated under the single rubric of the environment.Nor did he have any specific object of study.He met often with politicians, scientists (including Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the aristocracy.

(More plants, animals, minerals, and places are named after Humboldt than anyone else.) He discovered the magnetic equator.
In the Llanos, the vast grasslands that stretch from the Andes to the Amazon River, Humboldt noticed with wonder how many species found food or protection from the occasional Mauritia palm tree.
Wulf calls his rhapsodic Views of Nature a blueprint for much of nature writing today.
The Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (17691859) is all around.Nobody before Humboldt, for instance, had been able to explain how forests, by releasing oxygen, storing water, and providing shade, have a cooling effect on climate.Go as far as you can to prevent people from kneeling during Mass.He introduced the idea of classifying plants by climate zones instead of taxonomy, taking into account altitude, temperature, and other conditions related to location.We will do our best to arrange alternate dates for serious school-wide conflicts.Get rid of any remaining altar rails.But Wulf offers a more urgent argument for Humboldts relevance.Humboldt wrote that plants and animals limit each others numbers through long continued contest for nourishment and territory, with only the strongest survivingan idea, Wulf notes with some understatement, That would become essential to Darwins concept of natural selection.Suggest instead that to be a genuine Christian, a man has to stop being a man.During his yearlong expedition to Russia in 1829, he gave a speech at the Imperial Academy of Sciences.