Cover of the featured book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

Humboldt’s advice

In the first Geography lectures our professor Aartolahti described the way a Geographer observes the world: by taking the globe in her hand.

This came very vividly into my mind as I read Andrea Wulf’s marvellous book “The Invention of Nature” on Alexander von Humboldt and his impact on science. She made it so easy to fall in love again with Humboldt, one of the founding fathers of Geography, explorer, a friend of Goethe and Bolívar, and a great source of inspiration for Darwin and many other scholars.

In 1799, Humboldt embarked for a five-year expedition to South America where he observed the nature “with head and heart”. He combined the nature and human in an unforeseen manner, stressing how everything is interconnected. He was so modern by explaining the fundamental functions of the forests for the ecosystems and climate and worrying about deforestation. He also related colonialism to the devastation of the environment and criticised violence against indigenous people and slavery.

Concerning methodology, Humboldt paid meticulous attention to details and painstakingly made measurements with his barometers and thermometers. But he was also able to connect details into the global context. He had a flexible perspective, both “telescopic and microscopic”. Moreover, Humboldt brought subjectivity into science by stressing how we interpret and understand the world and how senses and intellect are connected.

Humboldt was also a great visualiser as he invented isotherms, which replaced long tables by presenting “world of patterns that hugged the earth in belts”, as Wulf beautifully describes it.

System Der Isotherm-Kurven in Physikalischer Atlas. Heinrich Berghaus, 1845. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Source: The First Isothermic World Maps | Worlds Revealed: Geography & Maps at The Library Of Congress (

By popularising science, supporting young scholars and stressing the interdisciplinary collaboration, Humboldt feels so relevant in the current world. He even talked about human-induced climate change, in the 19th century!

Humboldt urged scientist to take their equipment and go to the field. “Scientists need to leave their garrets and travel the world”, as Wulf quotes him.

Leaving a garret has been difficult during pandemic. Even with the possibilities provided by modern technology, we lose something if we cannot make physical observations. I have some evidence on this from the environmental audit community. Pandemic has hampered the ability of auditors to do field visits or on the spot-checks. Environmental auditors are concerned about the impact that this might have on the quality of audits.

The latest WGEA environmental survey: Environmental and climate audits on the rise (