Thursday, 23 March 2017

Out In All Weathers

Well, blow me down! It’s International Meteorological Day today, and this year’s theme is clouds. The main part of this annual celebration of the weather is to highlight the way in which our climate effects our environment and the myriad of life forms it sustains. Clouds are the visual manifestations of how the atmosphere works and can tell us a lot about what is happening to the weather.

Our understanding of how the weather works owes a lot (if not all) to the work of one extraordinary German scientist called Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). He spent many years travelling the globe taking measurements of everything from air temperature to plants he saw on his expeditions.

Humboldt was the most famous scientist of his era. Everyone wanted to meet him, which was very difficult considering he spent so much time climbing up volcanos and trudging through jungles. Kings and presidents as well as other famous scientists wanted to meet him. He became a celebrity. The last decades of his life were spent in Germany where he died following a stroke. His funeral was of state proportions with Prussian royalty in attendance.

Unlike today’s scientific world which is very compartmentalised Humboldt saw all science as connected. No subject could be studied on its own. Geology, geography, climatology, physics and magnetism all created the environment in which specific plants, animals and bacteria could live. Humboldt’s work meant that people knew why there were no polar bears in the jungle, or why there are no palm trees at the top of high mountains.

The most significant contribution to the modern world is his pioneering work into what is now the study of climate change. It’s the biggest natural concern of the modern era. And here we realise what a significant year this is. It was in 1817, 200 years ago, that Alexander von Humboldt published his first map of isotherms.

Isothermic maps show areas of equal mean annual temperature in the atmosphere. For the first time people saw a global map of the air around them. Scientists had many lists of temperatures of many locations around the globe. Humboldt was the first to show continuous isothermic lines going around the whole world.

During his travels and measurement-taking Humboldt also began to realise that humanity was changing his environment. By destroying forests the ground soil is deprived of nutrients, and rainfall can wash away such poor soil. Even though he wasn’t the first to warn about humanity’s destructive effect on nature (Christian philosopher were saying the same several centuries earlier) Humboldt has been hailed as the father of environmentalism.

Most of Humboldt’s measurements were taken during his 5-year expedition to Latin and South America. In what is now Ecuador he met the most significant of this “significant others”. A Spanish colonial aristocrat persuaded Humboldt to let his son, Don Carlos de Montúfar (1780-1816) to join the expedition. Not that Humboldt needed any persuading or that Don Carlos objected. A fellow explorer complained that Humboldt had spent too much time with young men who practiced “impure loves” and that the drop-dead-gorgeous, 21-year-old Don Carlos was obviously having sex with him. But then, this disgruntled explorer was probably jealous that Humboldt didn’t take him on his expedition instead of the young man.

Humboldt and Carlos parted ways after they arrived in France for the imperial coronation of Napoleon. Neither subsequently married nor had any closer friendships. Don Carlos went on to become a hero of the independence movement in South America and deserves his own extraordinary swash-buckling article some time in the future. Back to Humboldt.

Among Humboldt’s many other published works were illustrations of mountains showing temperatures, climates, plants and animals at various altitudes and cross-sections showing soil and rock composition. All were complimented with other data. People might think that infographics are a modern idea, but Alexander von Humboldt was designing them over 200 years ago.

Considering how famous he was in his lifetime and in the decades following his death it is surprising how little known he is today. People have heard of Newton, Galilieo, Darwin and Hawking. It could be argued that Alexander von Humboldt had a bigger influence on the modern world than any of them. The science world shows his high regard. The fact that more plant and animal species and geographical locations have been named after Humboldt is proof of his great reputation. He is also (perhaps) the first non-mythological figure, and first male, to have an asteroid named after him (54 Alexandra), and the first non-mythological figure to have a second asteroid named after him (4877 Humboldt).

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