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review 2017-08-01 18:09
The Invention of Nature
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature is not flawless (for me the weakest chapter was on Humboldt and Thoreau - but I've always thought Thoreau was over-rated), but it is a fascinating read.


Because before Carl Sagan's Cosmos, there was Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos.  (I don't think this is accidental, somehow.)  Humboldt's was even more popular in the 19th century than Sagan's was in the 20th.  Humboldt, in fact, was probably the most famous scientist of his own time - the Einstein of the 19th century.  There was mass mourning when he died at 87, and mass celebrations, across the planet, on the centenary of his birth (September 14, 1869).


And today he is mostly forgotten, except in South America.  Though people may wonder why there's a Humboldt Park in Chicago, a Humboldt County in California, and a Humboldt Current in the Pacific, and why many species are Humboldtii.  Who was this Humboldt person, anyway?


He was the Energizer Bunny of naturalists.  He never shut up, and most people didn't try to stop the font of knowledge (to quote his great friend, Goethe).  Should they try, if they succeeded for more than a sentence or two, it was a miracle.  He also refused to be stopped by piranhas, crocodiles, erupting volcanoes, great heights (though the very top of Chimborazo finally beat him), outbreaks of anthrax, or anything else. 


He made two great expeditions - to South America, in his early thirties, and to Siberia, when he was sixty.  (He longed for the Himalayas, but the British East India Company refused him permission to go.)  He spent all his inherited money on science, and was forced to become a royal chamberlain at the Prussian court, waiting attendance on his king, while he longed for the Himalayas, or, at the very least, Paris.  At night he wrote book after book, for some fifty years.  And he found many readers.


A handful of chapters are about not Humboldt himself, but some of the men he inspired.  Simon "Iron Ass" Bolivar.  Charles Darwin.  Henry David Thoreau.  George Perkins Marsh.  Ernst Haeckel.  John Muir.  These chapters are of varying quality, but they show that we have to thank Humboldt, at least in part, for everything from the theory of evolution to Art Nouveau to the Sierra Club.

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text 2015-01-22 17:49
Currently Listening
Cosmic Quest Cd (Bbc Audio) - Heather Couper

Thanks for the heads up, Bettie!  Currently listening on BBC Radio 4.



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text 2014-08-12 04:42
August Book a Day #11: Best for a Book Group
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an interesting book, and one that should provoke a lot of discussion, about race and ethics among other things.

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text 2013-12-31 19:44
Best Reads of 2013
How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate - Wendy Moore
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell,Angus Easson,Sally Shuttleworth
March - Geraldine Brooks
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Michael Moss
Dominion - C. J. Sansom
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Pericles Commission The Pericles Commission - Gary Corby
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century - Ian Mortimer
MaddAddam - Margaret Atwood

The Five-Star Reads:


How to Create the Perfect Wife - a wealthy lunatic obsessed with the educational theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau kidnaps two orphans from the Foundling Hospital to raise one of them to be his wife.  Hilarity ensues.


North and South - a novel by Mrs. Gaskell, and written at about the same time Dickens was also taking on industrialization, which she tackles here.


March - Geraldine Brooks tackles the American Civil War by looking at the absent father of the March girls in Little Women.


Salt, Sugar, Fat - you do not want to know how much of these substances the packaged food industry is stuffing into their products.  Really, you don't.  The science was fascinating, the ethics appalling.


Dominion - In a 1952 where Hitler won, Britain is fascist, and a power struggle is expected in Germany, where Hitler is believed to be dying.  Meanwhile in England, a man working for the Resistance at the Dominions Office has terrible choices to make.


Maddaddam - the final volume of Margaret Atwood's dystopian trilogy.


To Kill a Mockingbird - a reread.  I picked this up for the first time in about 30 years, and it held up beautifully.  I had forgotten how funny it was.


Honorable Mention:


The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (a paranormal historical mystery)

The Pericles Commission (a historical mystery set in ancient Athens)

Elizabeth of York (biography of Mrs. Henry VII)

Winter King (not quite a bio, not quite a study of the whole reign, but it's about Henry VII)

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (a Flavia de Luce, and a very strong one)

The Man in the High Castle (the book that made Philip K. Dick's reputation)

The Disappearing Spoon (the periodic table is fun)

The Age of Wonder (the Romantics discover science)

The Time-Traveler's Guide to Medieval England (the Elizabethan one is good, but this is better)

The Endurance (I should have read it in July, this book is so cold.)

Justice Hall (And several others in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, which are nearly as strong.)


And only a couple of real turkeys!  A very good year, all told.

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review 2013-12-17 19:56
A History of the World in 12 Maps
A History of the World in 12 Maps - Jerry Brotton

A History of the World in 12 Maps is a fascinating study of how much we can learn about the mindsets of those who made (and are still making) maps, and what these maps tell us can be fascinating.


A look at Ptolemy's great map of c. AD 200, for example, leads to a meditation on what the Greeks and Romans knew about geography, and how they thought about what maps should mean and what purpose they should serve.  How the Greeks invented many features still found on maps (but also came up with geographical ideas that didn't quite work, such as the uninhabitable zone at the equator, though some of these beliefs had great lasting power).  A study of the medieval mappa mundi reveals the picture of a world oriented to the east (and the garden of Eden), and most of the marked sites are place-names found in the Bible.  The only concern that matters is religion.  A look at a Korean map of the world of about 1400 results in a meditation on Chinese traditions in geography (and points out that Japan is out of place, and rotated 90 degrees).


Informative, and I would recommend this for anyone interested in geography or history.


Thanks to Net Galley for the ARC (wish it had had the maps pictured in it; I can only assume the pictures are as good as the text).

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