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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > May June 2016 > The Nature of ‘Nature’

The Nature of ‘Nature’

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. By Andrea Wulf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015. ISBN 978-0-385-35066-2. 472 pp. Hardcover, $30.

So just what is the nature of nature? Andrea Wulf’s book is a spright ly scientific and personal biography of Alexander von Hum boldt, a sadly forgotten giant of the Enlightenment. He was a man who traveled widely, measured rigorously, partied hard, thought deeply, influenced almost everyone, and stumbled onto a highly original and enduring way of thinking about that introductory question.

Von Humboldt’s story should appeal to skeptics and humanists firstly because it is intrinsically interesting. Wulf’s book tells the absorbing tale of a major Enlightenment figure: someone who charmed artists and poets such as Goethe and Schiller; set an alpine ascent record; rubbed shoulders with political leaders Simon Bolivar, Napoleon, and Thomas Jefferson; discovered an ocean current (and not even the one named after him!); collaborated with scientists such as Joseph Banks, Henry Cavendish, and Pierre-Simon Laplace; organized a global program for measuring Earth’s geomagnetic variations; lionized the literary salon’s of Paris; and still had time to publish prolifically. Wulf’s book is also fascinating for the story it tells about the early development of what today are loosely grouped into the “earth sciences”—geology, botany, meteorology, oceanography, ecology, and so on.

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