My fifty-ninth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jennifer Roberts about her new history of the Peloponnesian War (which I just reviewed here). Enjoy!
The Peloponnesian War is one of those subjects which, whenever a new book is published about it, begs the question, "do we really need <i>another</i> book on it?" This is understandable considering that 1) having been written about for nearly 2,500 years it has been one of the most worked-over events in human history, 2) the first of these books, Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks as one of the foundational texts of Western historiography and in many respects will never be bettered, and 3) recently (i.e. within the past half-century) Donald Kagan wrote both a four-volume history of the war AND a single-volume condensed version which are difficult to top as a modern account for the conflict. With all of these books, is there space for another?
The answer, as Jennifer Roberts proves, is a clear yes. She demonstrates this by fitting the conflict within the context of Greek city-state relations in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. By widening her focus, she shows the war not as the culmination of inter-city-state rivalry as it has sometimes been presented, but as one of a series of conflicts which neither began nor ended with the war itself. This is not a novel revelation (anybody who has more than a passing familiarity with Hellenic Greek history understands this), but by adopting this approach Roberts makes several more obscure points clearer, foremost among them being that Sparta was not so much the ultimate victor as merely temporarily ascendant among the city-states, with their defeat of Athens setting the stage for their own downfall a generation later.
Roberts's approach offers one of the best assessments of the impact of the war upon ancient Greece. While lacking the immediacy of the ancient sources or the thoroughness of Kagan, she draws upon both sources as well as others to provide a clear-eyed understanding of its true significance. It makes for an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand a conflict which became one of the great referential points of Western history, because while it may have been only one of many wars the Greeks fought with each other, it has endured in the popular imagination in ways which make it relevant even today.
First of all, let's just take a moment to appreciate that I finally finished a monthly read for More Historical Than Fiction. Yay, me! I know, I know. That's not really applause worthy, but I'm taking my successes where I can get them. ;-)
This book was a quick, enjoyable read for me. As a fast-paced mystery with a likable protagonist and a skilled creation of the Tudor world, it captivated and held my attention. I liked the fact that even though Queen Elizabeth never appears in a scene, the reader is given a strong impression of her character and heavy hand on events.
"Those who caught her eye lived a life between heaven and hell depending on her moods, which were as changeable as the weather: one moment sunshine and balm, the next thunder and rage."
Digging a little bit deeper, this book has a few flaws. John Shakespeare makes a great first impression, but I began to wonder what it was that he really believed and stood for as the book carried on. He is willing to risk his life to do his job, but why? The religious battle that grips the country seems to matter little to him, and he has no problem arresting one Catholic and sleeping with another.
Yet it wasn't until the odd Mother Davis bit that I took this book out of 5-star contention. I'm not even sure what to say about that strange episode.
The conclusion of the book felt a bit rushed after all the suspense of getting there, but the appearance of Will Shakespeare was a fun way to wrap things up. This is a series that will go on my TBR.
The Lost Hero of Science is not hyperbole. It's one of the great tragedies of history that this man's name is no longer on the tip of every man, woman and child's tongue (at least in the English speaking world).
I don't know where to begin, but to put it as concisely as possible, read any headline about environmental science today and Humboldt called it almost 200 years ago. Deforestation: check. Desertification: check. The long term devastation of monoculture: check. Climate change: check. At the more extreme ends, he was calling for the creation of the Panama canal decades before it was a glint in America's eye and he insisted that even rocks contain life (they do - look it up).
Humboldt was acerbic, impatient, and had a level of energy few can imagine without pharmaceutical assistance. He devoted his life in every way to science and nature, eschewing most personal relationships in favour of relentless study, but he was also generous with his knowledge and money - much to the betterment of the world and the detriment of his finances. He was in almost every way a true hero, as the title claims, and unarguably a role-model for more than just fellow scientists. Without Humboldt we very likely would not have Darwin (Darwin himself said without Humboldt, he would not have found his calling on the Beagle). Without Humboldt we wouldn't have those lines on weather maps, either (isotherms/isobars).
In short, his life was incredible and Wulf does a better than creditable job illustrating not only his adventures and indefatigable levels of energy, but his impact on the world; not just scientists, but artists, authors, poets and politicians. She writes a very readable narrative and communicates what must have been an enormous amount of information in a way that remains coherent throughout. She remains objective but is never dry or academic. My half-star demerit is only because some of the chapters devoted to others I found less interesting that the star of the book himself.
I'd like to insist that every single person read this book, but realistically... every single person should read this book. For those that enjoy science and history, it's a definite do-not-miss.
(This was a BookLikes-opoly Free Friday Read for July 7th and was 341 pages (minus the various appendices and index).
TITLE: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
AUTHOR: Andrea Wulf
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is not a complete or in-depth biography, but rather a journey to discover the forgotten life (and far reaching influence) of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary Prussian naturalist and explorer whose ideas changed the way we perceive the natural world, and in the process created modern environmentalism.
In this book, Wulf traces the threads that connect us to this extraordinary man, showing how Humboldt influenced many of the greatest artists, thinkers and scientists of his day. However, today he is almost forgotten outside academia (due to politics and changing fashions), despite his ideas still shaping out thinking. Ecologists, environmentalists and nature writers rely on Humboldt's vision, although most do so unknowingly. It is the author's stated objective to "rediscover Humboldt, and to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon of nature and science" and to "understand why we think as we do today about the natural world". In my opinion, Andrea Wulf successfully shows the many fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science.
Alexander von Humboldt was one of the founders of modern biology and ecology, and had a direct effect on scientists and political leaders. Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists, politicians and poets such as Charles Darwin, Wordsworth, Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, John Muir and Thoreau. The author successfully integrates Humboldt's life and activities into the political and social scene so we can get a picture of how important Humboldt was, and still is. Many people considered him the most famous scientist of his age.
Humboldt was a hands-on scientist. His expeditions of discovery led him through Europe, Latin America and eventually Siberia. He strongly desired to see the Himalaya, but the East India Company didn't want to co-operate for fear that he would write unflattering comments about their form of governance.
Humboldt also continued to assist young scientists, artists and explorers throughout his life, often helping them financially despite his own debt.
Alexander von Humboldt led a colourful and adventurous life, but this book also shows us why Humboldt is so important:
- he is the founding father of environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers.
- he made science accessible and popular - everybody learned from him.
- he believed that education was the foundation of a free and happy society.
- his interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever as scientists are trying to understand man's effect on the world.
- his beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and in fostering communication across disciplines, are the pillars of science today.
- his concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking today.
- his insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain topical today.
- he wrote about the abolition of slavery and the disastrous consequences of reckless colonialism.
- he believed that knowledge had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everbody.
- he invented isotherms (the lines of temperature and pressure on weather maps).
- he discovered the magnetic equator.
- he developed the idea of vegetation and climate zones.
- his quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography.
- he was one of the first people to propose that South America and Africa were once joined.
- he was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, based on observations made during his travels.
- he contributed to geology through his study of mountains and volcanoes.
- he was a significant contributor to cartography by creating maps of little-explored regions.
- his advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.
- he revolutionized the way we see the natural world.
- he developed the web of life (the concept of nature as a chain of causes and effects).
- he was the first scientist to talk about human-induced environmental degradation.
- he was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the tree's ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect.
- he warned that the agricultural techniques of his day could have devastating consequences.
- he discovered the idea of a keystone species (a species that is essential for an ecosystem to function) almost 200 years before the concept was named.
- he confirmed that the Casiquiare was a natural waterway between the Orinoco and the Rio Negro, which is a tributary of the Amazon, and made a detailed map.
- he considered the replacement of food crops with cash crops to be a recipe for dependency and injustice. He felt that monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, and that subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety, was a better alternative.
I found the chapters that describe Humboldt's expeditions to be fascinating - filled with hazards, wild animals, pests, injuries, epidemics, new discoveries and ideas. The chapters that discuss his busy social and work life were also interesting. However, I wish the author had spend more page space on his expeditions and discoveries, and less on the biographies of the people he influenced, especially the last few chapters which were somewhat long-winded. What I found rather refreshing was the lack of author speculation and interjection of her own theories - the narrative sticks to what is known. The author also manages to convey Humboldt's enthusiasm and energy so that the reader feels breathless just reading about all his activities.
This biographical search for the invention of nature and the man who "invented" it, provides a great deal of food for thought, woven around the life of a great (and overly energetic) scientist. This was an enjoyable and informative reading experience.
NOTE: This book includes three clear, easy to read maps that were particularly useful in following Humboldt's Journeys, and a large number of black and white, as well as colour illustrations were also included in the book. In addition, the author included an extensive section of notes, sources and bibliography, an index and a note on Humboldt's publications.