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Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey that Changed the Way We See the World Hardcover – April 12, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

His name may be vaguely familiar, although you may not know why. But in his time, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) 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 (1799–1804), 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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From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham (April 12, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592400523
  • ISBN-13: 978-0641774102
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #878,923 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gerard Helferich is the author of Stone of Kings: In Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya, as well as the highly praised Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World and the award-winning High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta. Before turning to writing in 2002, he was for 25 years an editor and publisher at several houses in New York, including Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, and John Wiley. He lives in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with his wife, the writer Teresa Nicholas. Visit his website at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Thomas L. Bosworth, Architect on June 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is the story of Alexander Von Humboldt's five-year journey of exploration in the New World (1799-1804). Humboldt was in his late twenties, a German aristocrat of independent means, brilliant and filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm. He set out with the idealistic belief that all of Nature (including humans) was an integrated entity which could be understood and defined by exacting scientific measurement. Quite a modern conviction for the 18th century! He returned to Europe internationally famous, acclaimed by readers of his widely published reports who found his constructive spirit a welcome relief from the current realities of the Napoleonic Wars.
Humboldt, his companion Bonpland, occasional fellow travelers, and a small coterie of native handlers and guides explored the upper reaches of the Orinoco River, deep in the impenetrable jungle bordering the Amazon watershed. They traveled in narrow dugout canoes, heavy with personnel, dunnage and scientific measuring equipment and boxes for their growing collection of specimens. They portaged rapids, slept in the wet, swatted mosquitoes and were constantly at the mercy of predators and exotic diseases. Later they traversed the tall rugged Andes in Equador and Peru, studying and recording everything around them. They paid particular attention to the great volcanoes, some over 20,000 feet, climbed them and contemplated their geological formation and established cutting edge scientific theories. Finally they journeyed through the more inhabited areas of Mexico and Cuba, recording anthropological, social, and political observations in addition to their continuing scientific studies of nature. Humboldt paid particular attention to the institution of slavery, which he abhorred.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Doug Reid on December 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Thank you, Gerard Helferich for Humboldt's Cosmos! Although I had heard of Alexander von Humboldt I had no idea of the scope of the man's accomplishments. He was one of those "one-in-a-million" individuals who when most adventurers would have said, "That's enough; I'm going home now.." he just kept on going, and going, and going - something like that proverbial bunny that just doesn't know how to quit or when enough is enough. In fact, it's amazing von Humboldt and Bonpland survived the host of crocodiles, piranha, treacherous mountain passes, tropical diseases, rebellious natives, bandits, to name but a few of the "challenges" set before them. You were right when you provided the analogy of von Humboldt being like Einstein who, while developing his theory of Relativity, also managed to conquer Mount Everest. In my view, Humboldt's Cosmos is quite an accomplishment. The author took great pains to provide valuable context as the journeys unfolded. If there is a flaw it is, like the explorer himself, because the book did tend to go on and on through page after page of unbroken text. Although at first excited, and then humbled as we followed Humboldt's every move and thought down every river and over every mountain pass, by the end the reader is left somewhat exhausted. Also, there was no reference - perhaps because there is no concrete evidence one way or the other - about what Humboldt thought, or would have thought, about Darwin's theory expressed in his in his, "Origin of the Species". Presumably, Darwin had let him in on his controversial theory in the years before he decided to publish it. We know they met, but did they discuss it? Perhaps Humboldt was an enthusiastic supporter, if not admirer. Or perhaps his time had, by then, come and gone, and he had nothing to say that had not already been said or was being said by others.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey A. Thompson VINE VOICE on May 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The subject of the book was amazing. Humboldt traveled and studied everything: geology, botany, sociology, geography, anthropology, archaeology, and astronomy. He created a new science, plant geology. He traveled all over South America and Central America. He was well loved everywhere he went. The book was a spellbinding read.

The only minor downside of the book is it does drag in the middle. Humboldt travels to many places and the author almost does a day-by-day journal. The amount of detail and the hundreds of locations just gets boring, but I stress, on the whole, the book relates a fascinating story about the most fascinating forgotten man in history. Putting the book down is hard.

To understand modern science, this book is a must read. This one man influences the development of almost every branch of science and contributes to the abolishment of slavery in several different countries. The book provides a glimpse into history that I thoroughly enjoyed.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Denis Benchimol Minev on February 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Humboldt was a truly extraordinary character. He was a mixture of adventurer and scientist that has rarely been seen, especially with such developed expertise in both areas. This biography covers Humboldt's entire life, with special focus on his trip to Latin America between 1799 and 1804.

This book is written as an interesting narrative, explaining with only passing remarks the actual science behind his achievements. Advances that Humboldt made cover such different fields as botany, geology, geography, anthropology, climatology, magnetism, among others. The book is very good at outlining the spirit of those discoveries; if you would like an actual explanation, look in the Personal Narratives that Humboldt wrote himself.

As an adventurer, he criss crossed South America at a time when much of it was yet undiscovered and uncharted. He mapped the Casiquiare canal, which at the time was a legendary connection between the Amazon and Orinoco basins. He made it from Venezuela to Peru, climbing in the process some of the highest mountains in Latin America (including the Chimborazo, which at the time was believed to be the highest mountain in the world and yet unclimbed). He was for many years the high altitude record holder of the world.

It is amazing such a towering figure is not remembered among the ranks of Einstein, Da Vinci or Darwin. I highly recommend this book and finding out more about Humboldt, especially if you enjoy science, travel or adventure writing.
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