Costa Book Awards: Biography winner

What links penguins, giant squid, the moon, Darwin and Napolean?

One man, Alexander von Humboldt. The namesake of Humboldt Penguins, the moon’s Mare Humboldtianum, the Humboldt squid; he inspired Darwin and Napolean was famously jealous of him. More things have been named after Humboldt than anyone else- but he’s been largely forgotten since. This prizewinning biography aims to set that straight.

humboldtJudges awarding the prize said: “Alexander von Humboldt is the most brilliant polymath you’ve never heard of. The thrillingly readable story of a visionary 18 th century scientist and adventurer who travelled the globe, from the South American rainforests to the Siberian steppes, and foresaw the destructive impact of mankind on the world.”

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist. His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy’s Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolivar’s revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’. Taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – racing across anthrax-infected Russia or mapping tropical rivers alive with crocodiles – Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and The Invention of Nature traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it’s only coming into its own now. Alexander von Humboldt really did invent the way we see nature.

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