The invention of nature

Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

andrea-wulf-the-invention-of-nature“They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide.”

And so begins this highly enjoyable book telling the story of one of the greatest scientists of all time. It takes you on a return journey starting in Berlin and taking in other European cities, the Americas and Russia. On route you are introduced to characters equally as colourful as the book’s subject.

In London, Humboldt rubs shoulders with Captain Bligh, Joseph Banks and William Hodges. You hear about his friendship with the poet Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe; how the two became scientific sparring partners and how Goethe influenced Humboldt to combine nature and art. He talked politics with Thomas Jefferson, influenced numerous scientists, including Darwin, Theroux and naturalist John Muir through his books and even invigorated Simon Bolivor in his uprising against the Spanish in South America.

The invention of nature is a great (in the true sense of the word) book. Humboldt’s story is as exciting as any Hollywood blockbuster and Andrea Wulf does an exemplary job in telling it. The very first paragraph in the prologue leaves you wanting to know more about this remarkable man, his life and escapades. By the time you reach the book’s conclusion, you will be left in no doubt as to why there are more natural things named after him than anyone else who has ever lived – including a lunar mare (basaltic plain formed by ancient volcanos) on the Earth’s Moon.

Despite these accolades, his epic explorations and highly respected scientific writings, Humboldt is little known outside his home country, Germany, and parts of South America. Andrea’s book should go a long way towards rectifying this curious anomaly.

‘The invention of nature’ won the 2015 Costa biography award for very good reason. Whether you are interested in science and nature, history, exploration or just love an absorbing tale, read this book, you’ll be glad you did.

Allan Archer – talk: Wildlife

November 2016