Sep 142015


Today is the birthday (1769) of Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of romantic philosophy. Humboldt’s quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt’s advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring. Humboldt is not exactly a household name these days, but in his lifetime he was one of the most famous people alive. What is professionally called “Humboldtian science” is still of major significance, although now it is more commonly referred to simply as “holism.” Humboldt believed in the oneness of all phenomena in the universe, so that it was impossible to understand the parts without understanding the whole, and the place of the parts within that whole. I am a great admirer of that way of thinking.

There is an old saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This sums up the great problem of specialization and professionalism. My doctor in New York told me once that if she thought you needed surgery she would send you to a surgeon, but if she thought you did not need surgery she would send you elsewhere. Her point is that all surgeons see medical problems as surgical problems because that is how they are trained. The same holds true for all professions – if you let it. Humboldt thought in exactly the opposite direction: see problems from ALL angles – bring in science, art, philosophy, or whatever else it takes to find an answer. Some of this kind of thinking still exists, but usually only among the brightest and best. Top quantum physicists, for example, read eastern mysticism and see connexions with their own work, whereas the drudge dig narrow channels to move along. We need more thinkers like Humboldt to widen our horizons, so I celebrate him today.


Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769 and worked as a Prussian mining official in the 1790s until 1797 when he quit and began collecting scientific knowledge and equipment. His extensive wealth aided his infatuation with the spirit of Romanticism; he amassed an extensive collection of scientific instruments and tools as well as a sizeable library. In 1799 Humboldt, under the protection of King Charles IV of Spain, left for South America and New Spain, toting all of his tools and books. The purpose of the voyage was steeped in Romanticism; Humboldt intended to investigate how the forces of nature interact with one another and find out about the unity of nature. Humboldt returned to Europe in 1804 and was acclaimed a public hero.


The details and findings of Humboldt’s journey were published in his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial Regions of the New Continent (30 volumes). He spent the rest of his life mainly in Europe, although he did embark on a short expedition to Siberia and the Russian steppes in 1829. Humboldt’s last works were contained in Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (“Cosmos: Sketch for a Physical Description of the Universe”). The book mainly described the development of a life-force from the cosmos, but also included the formation of stars from nebular clouds as well as the geography of planets. Humboldt died in 1859, while working on the fifth volume of Kosmos. Humboldt’s novel style has since been called Humboldtian science. Humboldt had the ability to combine the study of precise empirical data with a holistic view of nature and its aesthetically pleasing characteristics. Examining the interconnectedness of vegetation and its environment is one of the most important aspects of Humboldt’s work, an idea labeled as “terrestrial physics,” something that scientists who preceded him, such as Linnaeus, failed to do. Humboldtian science is founded on a principle of “general equilibrium of forces.” General equilibrium is the idea that there are infinite forces in nature that are in constant conflict, yet all forces balance each other out. Humboldt laid the groundwork for future scientific endeavors by establishing the importance of studying organisms and their environment in conjunction.


Natural history in the eighteenth century was the “nomination of the visible.” Carl Linnaeus was preoccupied with fitting all nature into an all-encompassing taxonomy, fixated on only what was visible. Move towards the turn of the nineteenth century where Immanuel Kant became interested in understanding where species derived from, he was not as concerned with an organism’s physical attributes. Next, Johann Reinhold Forster, one of Humboldt’s future partners, became interested in the study of vegetation as an essential way of understanding nature and its relationship with human society. Proceeding Forster, Karl Willdenow examined plant geography, the distribution of plants and regionality as a whole. All of these pieces in the history before Humboldt help to shape what is defined as Humboldtian science. Humboldt took into account both the outward appearance and inward “meaning” of plant species. His attention to natural aesthetics and empirical data and evidence is what set his scientific work apart from ecologists before him. It was through his holistic approach to science and the study of nature that Humboldt was able to find a web of interconnectedness despite a multitude of extensive differences between different species of organisms.

Humboldt was committed to what he called ‘terrestrial physics.’ Essentially Humboldt’s new scientific approach required a new type of scientist: Humboldtian science demanded a transition from the naturalist to the physicist. Humboldt described how his idea of terrestrial physics differs from traditional “descriptive” natural history when he stated, “[traveling naturalists] have neglected to track the great and constant laws of nature manifested in the rapid flux of phenomena…and to trace the reciprocal interaction of the divided physical forces.” Humboldt did not consider himself an explorer, but rather a scientific traveler, who accurately measured what explorers had reported inaccurately. According to Humboldt, the goal of the terrestrial physicist was to investigate the confluence and interweaving of all physical forces. An incredibly extensive array of precise instrumentation had to be readily available for Humboldt’s terrestrial physicist.


One concept that is central to Humboldtian science is that of a general equilibrium of forces. Humboldt explains: “The general equilibrium which reigns amongst disturbances and apparent turmoil, is the result of infinite number of mechanical forces and chemical attractions balancing each other out.” Equilibrium is derived from an infinite number of forces acting simultaneously and varying globally. In other words, the lawfulness of nature, according to Humboldt, is a result of infinity and complexity. Humboldtian science promotes the idea that the more forces that are accurately measured over more of the earth’s surface results in a greater understanding of the order of nature.

The voyage to the Americas produced a number of discoveries and developments that help to illustrate Humboldt’s ideas about this equilibrium of forces. Humboldt produced the Tableau physique des Andes (“Physical Profile of the Andes), which aimed at capturing his voyage to the Americas in a single graphic table. Humboldt meant to capture all of the physical forces, from organisms to electricity, in this single table. Among many other complex empirical recordings of elevation-specific data, the table included a detailed biodistribution. This biodistribution mapped the specific distributions of flora and fauna at every elevation level on a mountain.


Humboldt’s study of plants provides an example of the movement of Humboldtian science away from traditional science. Humboldt’s botany also further illustrates the concept of equilibrium and the Humboldtian ideas of the interrelationship of nature’s elements. Although he was concerned with physical features of plants, he was largely focused on the investigation of underlying connexions and relations among plant organisms. Humboldt worked for years on developing an understanding of plant distributions and geography. The link between the balancing equilibrium of natural forces and organism distribution is evident when Humboldt states:

As in all other phenomena of the physical universe, so in the distribution of organic beings: amidst the apparent disorder which seems to result from the influence of a multitude of local causes, the unchanging law of nature become evident as soon as one surveys an extensive territory, or uses a mass of facts in which the partial disturbances compensate one another.

The study of vegetation and plant geography arose out of new concerns that emerged with Humboldtian science. These new areas of concern in science included integrative processes, invisible connexions, historical development, and natural wholes.

Humboldtian science applied the idea of general equilibrium of forces to the continuities in the history of the generation of the planet. Humboldt saw the history of the earth as a continuous global distribution of such things as heat, vegetation, and rock formations. In order to graphically represent this continuity Humboldt developed the idea of isothermal lines. These isothermal lines functioned in the general balancing of forces in that isothermal lines preserved local peculiarities within a general regularity. According to Humboldtian science, nature’s order and equilibrium emerged “gradually and progressively from laborious observing, averaging, and mapping over increasingly extended areas.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson once dubbed Humboldt to be “one of those wonders of the world… who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.”

When Humboldt first began his studies of organisms and the environment he claimed that he wanted to “reorganize the general connections that link organic beings and to study the great harmonies of Nature.” He is often considered one of the world’s first genuine ecologists. Humboldt succeeded in developing a comprehensive science that joined the separate branches of natural philosophy under a model of natural order founded on the concept of dynamic equilibrium. Humboldt’s work reached far beyond his personal expeditions and discoveries. People from all across the globe participated in his work. Some such participants included French naval officers, East India Company physicians, Russian provincial administrators, Spanish military commanders, and German diplomats. Furthermore, Charles Darwin carried a copy of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative aboard H.M.S. Beagle and it influenced his observations and theorizing. Humboldt’s projects, particularly those related to natural philosophy, played a significant role in the influx of European money and travelers to Spanish America in increasing numbers in the early 19th century. Sir Edward Sabine, a British scientist, worked on terrestrial magnetism in a manner that was certainly Humboldtian. Also, British scientist George Gabriel Stokes depended heavily on abstract mathematical measurement to deal with error in a precision instrument; certainly Humboldtian science. Maybe the most prominent figure whose work can be considered representative of Humboldtian science, is geologist Charles Lyell. Despite a lack of emphasis on precise measurement in geology at the time, Lyell insisted on precision in a Humboldtian manner.


On this day let us remember a man whose work showed us how to see the totality which too often these days we miss because the whole is so often torn into parts. If we saw humanity as one unified whole we would not be hung up on racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. If we saw the planet as a unity we would not pollute, pillage and exploit.

Humboldt was a Prussian, a Berliner. “Berliner” has been a word that is the subject of much debate ever since JFK visited the Berlin wall and announced “Ich bin ein Berliner” which, despite the gibes of linguistically challenged morons, means “I am a Berliner.” He was intending to express his unity with the residents of West Berlin who at the time were encircled by the Berlin Wall and his sentence is grammatically correct. But critics unfamiliar with German and Berlin tried to argue that he had said “I am a jelly doughnut” because “Berliner” can also mean a species of doughnut (NOT the jelly doughnut of the U.S.). Oh dear. Wrong in so many ways. Yes, “Berliner” can mean a kind of doughnut but not the way JFK used the term.

A Berliner Pfannkuchen (Berliner for short) is a traditional German pastry similar to a doughnut with no central hole, made from sweet yeast dough traditionally fried in lard (as fish and chips should be), with a marmalade or jam filling and usually topped with icing, powdered sugar or granulated sugar. They are sometimes made with chocolate, champagne, custard, mocha, or advocaat filling, or with no filling at all.


The yeast dough contains flour, eggs, milk, and butter. The classical Pfannkuchen made in Berlin consists of two halves filled, stuck together and deep-fried in lard, whereby the distinctive bright bulge occurs. The filling is related to the topping: for plum-butter, powdered sugar; for raspberry, strawberry and cherry jam, granulated sugar; for all other fillings, sugar icing, sometimes flavored with rum. Today the filling is usually injected with a large syringe or pastry bag after the dough is fried in one piece.

Today Berliners can be purchased throughout the year, though they were traditionally eaten to celebrate on New Year’s Eve (Silvester) as well as the carnival holidays (Rosenmontag and Fat Tuesday). A common German practical joke is to secretly fill some Berliners with mustard instead of jam and serve them together with regular Berliners without telling anyone. Germans are so amusing !!

The terminology used to refer to this delicacy differs greatly in various areas of Germany. While called Berliner (Ballen) in Northern and Western Germany as well as in Switzerland, the Berliners themselves and residents of Brandenburg, Western Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony know them as Pfannkuchen, which in the rest of Germany generally means pancakes; pancakes are known in Berlin as Eierkuchen (“egg cakes”). JFK was not misunderstood in Berlin.

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