Report on the Invention of Nature

by Andrea Wulf

Striking while the iron is still hot and giving you a quick report back on Alexander von Humbolt ‘The Invention of Nature’ or ‘The Lost Hero of Science’ (depending on version read). Great to see you all and be back in the country for the club.

This month’s read inspired a bit of divergence in appreciation. Thanks to the two absent members for their reviews in advance. Much appreciated and not too far from the feelings shared by most.

Not all finished the book – ’twas noted as being a little long – a little too long by the majority feeling. However, those that did generally appreciated as opening up a window on a life not widely known – supporting that loss idea suggested by the title of the American version.

One overwhelming aspect that received universal note was that it was a largely uncritical study of von Humbolt and his specific contributions. I think both Brian M and Fergal pointed to the fact that the reader largely comes away from this work with a sense that it misses out on being a biography of von Humbolt himself. It is more a collection of how he is reflected in the eyes of others. Joe posits that it is true however to the title which is not necessarily focussing on von Humbolt but instead his contribution – the invention of nature. In this is certainly achieves and I am happy to admit that I for one come away from the discussion more appreciative of his sense of conception based on a vast collection of data and observations.

Jim challenged the ‘scientific’ contributions of von Humbolt from a scientific standpoint and this did lead to a good discussion around his actual contribution and whether there was a sense that much of the contribution is assembled from looking backwards and also appreciating how others brought forward ideas that he might have surfaced and left slightly unfinished or resulted from his copious collection of data – he was a particularly prodigious producer of published works.

I like the idea – Mike? – that what he was putting forward was something we might think of as Science +. Interesting.

I think there was a sense that the anecdotal side tours were actually of greater attraction than the main story being related. I certainly left that to be the case.

There were a goodly number of questions raised by the work:

  1. Do we have to like him?
  2. Was it too uncritical of von Humbolt as well as those whose life he touched?
  3. Was he more a collector/compiler rather than an inventor/innovator?
  4. What did people actually think about him and the way he lived his life at the time?

So…onto the numbers.
We had Fergal weighing in with a 6 and Brian M with an 8 in advance.
The voting on the night was Joe 8.5, Jim 7.25, Brian C (no vote not far enough to vote, Mike 6.5, and Shawn 6.

What certainly remains is that he lead an absolutely remarkable life of travels and simply as a travelogue this is a wonderful recounting. Most appreciative of learning about someone they had not known of in the past.

The choice of reads for next month is: The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin (yes that Steve Martin). Fingers crossed that it is up to his own unique standard and you all may enjoy – I look forward to seeing whether you do when we meet in April.

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