From Publishers Weekly
His name may be vaguely familiar, although you may not know why. But in his time, Alexander von Humboldt (17691859) was an explorer and scientist of unparalleled fame, whose work largely inspired Charles Darwin and influenced the course of a number of scientific disciplines ranging from geology to meteorology. Helferich's lush and engaging biographical adventure tale, which covers mainly the years Humboldt spent exploring Latin America (17991804), successfully recreates the New World when it was still very novel to European eyes. A Prussian sailing under a Spanish flag, Humboldt and his trusty (but poorly fleshed out) sidekick, Aimé Bonpland, carve a path from the Old World through the Canary Islands, to the parts of South America now known as Venezuela, Colombia and Peru; later, he travels to Cuba and Mexico. Through the Amazon and the Andes, the flies and mosquitoes, the crocodiles, piranha and jaguars, Humboldt and a small but changing group of assistants lug all manner of scientific instrumentation, boxes of botanical samples and provisions over thousands of miles, through uncharted territories and back again, discovering in the process the faded glory of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, the unsustainable nature of the slave trade and innumerable new species of plants. Helferich's eye for telling detail does justice to Humboldt's own obsessive culling of observed particulars about the world around him, laying bare in the process many of the foundations of modern scientific method.
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Retracing the 1799-1804 odyssey of von Humboldt through South and Central America, Helferich synthesizes the many biographies written about the explorer into a concise appreciation of his personality and scientific significance. The author also appropriately digresses about the history of the places visited by von Humboldt, who was a perceptive reporter of conditions in the Spanish empire immediately before its colonies revolted. Despite almost three centuries of rule by 1799, the Spanish domains still had unexplored territory, tempting von Humboldt, then 30, to seek there the scientific glory he aimed for since his youth in Prussia. Supported by an inheritance and buddy Aime Bonpland, von Humboldt set forth initially to investigate a geographical controversy (Did the Orinoco River connect with the Amazon?) but wowed the world largely with his discoveries in botany, zoology, and geology. Helferich recounts the journey's risks, from piranhas to volcanoes, and his presentation is sure to satisfy reader curiosity about the explorer who had so many places named for him. Gilbert Taylor
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