Andrea Wulf on The Invention of Nature, Part 1: Humboldt's Naturegemälde

Episode Notes

When you hear the word “nature,” what comes to mind? Chances are, if you are listening to this in the 21st Century, the image is one of a vast, interconnected, living network — one in which you and your fellow human beings play a complicated part. And yet, this is a relatively recent way of thinking for the modern West. It takes a special kind of thinker — and a special kind of life — to find and recognize the patterns that connect different environments around the planet. Until the pioneering research of 19th-Century explorer Alexander von Humboldt, no one had ever noticed global similarities between the climates and creatures at a given altitude, on different continents. His legendary work popularized not only a new portrait of the world and its complex inter-relatedness, but innovated vastly influential ways of doing and communicating science — including novel data visualization and interdisciplinary international collaboration methods. 

Von Humboldt, though, would bristle at the notion that he stands alone as some Great Man in history, preferring to acknowledge not just the inspiration that he drew from poets and philosophers, but also the Indigenous peoples he met and worked with in his travels. His theories beg to be examined in light of the aesthetic sensibilities with which they were communicated, as well as their sociopolitical and philosophical impact — including how they fertilized the Transcendentalist Romantics, founded what we now call ecology, and exemplified a synthesis of Art and Science at which our age of vast but fragmented knowledge can only marvel.

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week and next, we have a special two-part conversation for you with SFI Miller Scholar Andrea Wulf, author of six books — including the New York Times Bestseller The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, winner of the Royal Society Science Book Prize and too many others to name in this introduction. In Wulf’s words, “This is not a biography about this great man. This is the biography of an idea.” In part one we begin our journey in Prussia at the turn of the 19th Century — and in a rich milieu of daring minds including Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and how their philosophies formed the basis for a profound new vision of the natural world…

Subscribe to Complexity Podcast wherever you prefer to listen for part two next week.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Cris Moore - Complexity 51
Stefan Thurner
David Krakauer - Complexity 1
Merlin Sheldrake
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Edgar Mitchell
Rusty Schweickert
Dani Bassett - SFI Community Lecture, “Networks Thinking Themselves”
Kirell Benzi - SFI Seminar, “Data + Art = Better Science Communication”
Mark Moffett - Complexity 52
Humphry Davy
Charles Lyell
Michael Faraday

Episode Transcription

Andrea Wulf (0s): There's no point in just knowing if you are a scientist. Surely the communication, I don't know if you'd even call it an audience, but to your fellow human beings, is very important. And I think Humboldt was excellent at that. So the Naturegemälde, which is essentially a drawing of a cross-section of Chimborazo, which has all the plant names of the plants he found at the exact altitude where he had found them. And then to the left and to the right, you have 20 columns filled with scientific data of all the stuff he measured basically as he was going up from humidity, temperature, the blueness of the sky, the chemical components of the air.

So what you can do is you can trace a line across, say at 10,000 feet, and you get all the information that is now they surely think about this is that it's basically a poster. It's packed with complex scientific data, but it's super easy to understand. Everybody can understand it. You don't need to be a scientist. That's why his books are huge international bestsellers. 

Michael Garfield (1m 3s): When you hear the word nature, what comes to mind? Chances are, if you are listening to this in the 21st century, the images, one of a vast interconnected living network, one in which you and your fellow human beings play a complicated part. And yet this is a relatively recent way of thinking for the modern west. It takes a special kind of thinker and a special kind of life to find and recognize the patterns that connect different environments around the world. Until the pioneering research of 19th century explorer, Alexander Von Humboldt, no one had ever noticed global similarities between the climates and creatures on a given altitude on different continents is legendary work popularized, not only a new portrait of the world and its complex inter-relatedness, but innovated vastly influential ways of doing and communicating science, including novel data visualization and international interdisciplinary collaboration methods.

Von Humboldt, though, would bristle at the notion that he stands alone as some great man in history preferring to acknowledge not just the inspiration that he drew from poets and philosophers, but also the indigenous peoples he met and worked with in his travels. His theories begged to be examined in light of the aesthetic sensibilities with which they were communicated as well as their socio-political and philosophical impact, including how they fertilized the transcendentalist romantics, founded what we now call ecology and exemplified a synthesis of art and science at which our age of fragmented knowledge can only marvel.

Welcome to Complexity, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I'm your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week, we'll bring you with us for far ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers, developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe. This week and next, we have a special two-part conversation for you with SFI Miller scholar, Andrea Wulf, author of six, including the New York times best seller, The Invention of Nature, winner of the Royal Society Science Book Prize, and too many others to name in this introduction.

In Wulf's words, this is not a biography about this great man. This is the biography of an idea. In part one, we begin our journey in Prussia at the turn of the 19th century in a rich milieu of daring minds and how their philosophies formed the basis for a profound new vision of the natural world.

Michael Garfield (3m 29s): Subscribe to complexity podcast, wherever you prefer to listen for part two next week. If you value our research and communication efforts, please rate and review us at Apple Podcasts and/or consider making a donation at You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at

Michael Garfield (3m 47s): Thank you for listening. This last year of working remote has taken a toll, I think, on a lot of people and it's hard to maintain the rapport with everybody when you never see each other.

Andrea Wulf (4m 0s): I totally agree. I find as a writer, I'm obviously kind of used to having these long periods of being a hermit. So I think it's a good profession in a pandemic. But I’m totally missing all the kind of serendipity of being in a bar and talking to someone about something completely unrelated, which then suddenly inspires you to think about something which then somehow kind of makes it into your book and all this. I'm a kisser and a hugger. So I'm finding this very difficult, not to touch people.

Michael Garfield (4m 32s): I have a two year old now and it's like, what is happening to her young brain through all of seeing people in masks. 

Andrea Wulf (4m 41s): My daughter had a baby while I got stuck in Germany with hand luggage for several months and missed the birth of my grandchildren. That's the bit I struggled the most about. He's now nine months and you see now he's not really played with any kids. He's not like licked other babies and all that stuff you do, crawl over. It's very strange. And I totally agree. I had not even thought about the face mask really hard just with your eyes.

Michael Garfield (5m 12s): At least then you still have your eyes. Text only communication is a disaster. All of the other problems that people are claiming about social media, I think pale in comparison to the idea that we can scale human communication. No matter how brilliantly we designed the newsfeed algorithms, trying to understand each other, when you have nothing else to go on is just a nightmare. All of these large companies that are going fully remote, like it seems all progressive.

Andrea Wulf (5m 40s): It's probably really nice if you work like a couple of days at but I missed my fellowship in Santa Fe because of the stupid pundit I was meant to arrive on the 2nd of April. I was really looking forward to it because it is such a bonkers place for someone who does something, what I do. It's terrifying also because I can remember sitting there and I think it was Cris Moore and he had this German guy Stefan over and they were like scribbling or doing this mathematical proven. For me, it was like the first time actually seeing what I write about historically happening in real life, but also being absolutely terrified because I'm not a scientist, but I just loved it.

I just so enjoyed it. And I was meant to come for three months and I was so looking forward to it. I have a Zoom meeting scheduled with Tim and David next week. I'm going to beg them to do something because I can't come now because I have to finish the boo. I think it's not the right time anyway. So I want to beg them I'm be able to push it to '23 for my next book. You have to wish me luck. 

Michael Garfield: What is this next book on? What is it?

Andrea Wulf: It was finished because I have not been distracted for more than a year now. I'm working like day and night on this.

So boring in the middle of nowhere in Germany. So cold, still in mid-May. I'm still in my winter clothes. I haven't worked out my elevator pitch yet. So I can't really summarize it briefly, but it's basically about a bunch of philosophers and poets and writers who came together for a decade in this small town in Germany, Jena, which is where Humboldt also went in 1794. And for like a blink of a moment in Western philosophy, they changed everything.

So you have every single important German philosopher and poet live in this tiny 4,000 people town coming up with a new philosophy. That's what I'm arguing that makes us a selfish species, which ultimately will destroy the planet. But also it's basically the moment where we began to use ourself as the lens through which to understand the world, which was exhilarating then, because it gave us free will and power, self-determination all these exciting things. But we became these people who think it's our right to take ourselves as the very first lens through which to understand the world.

And it's this balancing act between who am I as an individual, who am I as a member of a community, which of course through the pandemic became something really important again. So Humboldt is a sight figure in there because he comes in for a brief moment. But Goethe, for example, very important. But there's a bunch of philosophers which no one has heard of in the English speaking well, but which are super famous people in Germany. I think I'm trying to bring them down from their pedestal as the kind of great writers and thinkers.

The fun thing is they will have affairs with each other. So there's a lot of sex and rock and roll basically, which is really, really hard to get through. And then I just have to get my reader back now they're all having sex with women who are getting divorced three times. And so it's been a fun book to write.

Michael Garfield (9m 3s): It's funny that you bring this particular thing up. It's obvious it's such an obvious natural extension from the Humboldt work. It's just worth noting as like a segway into an actual podcast. It's funny how these things happen, where you have this nucleus of innovation, somewhere, that out of that kind of collaborative intermingling could emerge an idea about a liberal, modern self that's like a viral meme that like you just said, spun completely out of control.

And it's taken over the world and is undermining its own ecological supports to fold it into Humboldt's vision of the world and like to give us a place to start here. That reminds me of the way that all of the complex neural motifs in the brain come together to form the appearance of an individual. There's something in the zeitgeists or in the philosophical development that resembles this tension that we see between understanding the underlying reality, understanding the nature of humans and the rest of the living world in terms of individuals or in terms of networks.

Andrea Wulf (10m 19s): If you've read Merlin Sheldrake's book, The Entangled Life about fungi. I mean, he poses these fascinating questions about what is actually an organism we've gone to for so long have assumed she's something where we end basically. That's our organism, but no, not really. There are all these things in us. What I find interesting about this is actually because I'm a historian. I always like to understand where something is coming from. It's almost kind of settling the horse backwards if you know what I mean. So basically I became interested in this by looking at why are we so selfish?

There was a moment completely banal. I was on one of my Humboldt trips and I was in Peru and I went to Machu Picchu and it was like a long schlep up there. The first thing that people do that tourists do is take a selfie of themselves in front of it. It's really beautiful. Why would you put yourself in there? And it's that sense of why do we always have to see everything through the lens of our individual life in a way? And you said, this seems like a natural extension to the Humboldt book and weirdly for a long time.

I didn't think so. I feel like, how am I ever going to explain to my readers, how I came from this explorer, who is the forgotten father and family environmentalist to these kind of bunch of German philosophers other than that, he knew them. And that I knew about this scenery really by him being there for a moment. It didn't feel a natural topic first for me, because I always write about the relationship between human kind of nature. And then I realized, no, it's actually not. If I want to truly understand the relationship between human kind of nature I actually have to understand us as an individual first that's actually the book we should have been written before the Humboldt book in a funny sort of way. But I seem to do books backwards because philosophers there, he basically really came up with this idea that we live in this unity, like mind and matter, which had always been before separated became one in his philosophy, in the school, the nature philosophy, which then becomes incredibly important for home, but who takes this and applies this to science.

And it says, well, this is all in living organism. It's funny how these things somehow always come together in the end. So I don't know what has to come after that book then, because I think now I've arrived. I've arrived. Where is the individual coming from? So I have no idea. It has to be about God then or something like that.

Michael Garfield (12m 46s): I would say probably, I was going to say medieval cosmologist, isn't the gritty prequel to the gritty prequels, right? You actually jumped right into where I wanted to start this with you, which was with Schelling and with Goethe with these relationships that this guy who we should have actually introduced. Alexander Von Humboldt has these relationships with these brilliant poetic thinkers that shape the way that he ultimately decides to explore the world and the way that he decides to communicate it.

And to me, this was the piece that just to like run a thread through this whole conversation about the relationship between science and art and poetry and philosophy and the imagination, how we really ought to perhaps. I have to be careful about shoulds in these conversations, but like given the remarkable track record of this guy's visionary accomplishments, all the things we're going to talk about today, like basically invented big science, basically invented data visualization, basically invented international interdisciplinary collaborations, invented the way that we think about nature today, essentially.

And he had all sorts of really, really prescient political observations as well. Maybe we should be heating his words about the relationship between these other disciplines that so often don't seem to figure into what we think of as the process of discovery these days. That's all just to say, where do you start us in the development of this, guy's mind this guy's approach to the world and his story? 

Andrea Wulf (14m 29s): So this is really unfair because you just basically started on my favorite subject and I have to now paddle back and introduce him. So you'll have to remind me that we go back to there because I actually think that Humboldt’s insight about this very tight bond between the arts and the sciences is I think at the moment, for me, the most important aspect of his very broad life. So let's paddle back a little bit and start actually who he was. So some basic facts, he was born in 1769, which is the same year as Napoleon. He was the son of a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family in Berlin, where he was brought up.

He had a quite unhappy childhood, a very kind of emotionally cold mother. He was educated to the kind of highest standards at that time. So very much within the kind of enlightenment thinking. The mother dies when he's quite young, instead of going to the funeral and being really sad he was rather pleased about the whole thing and said, “oh, I finally, I can go on this great big voyage, which I'm planning to do.” So he left his life of privilege. He went on an exploration of South America and he left Europe in 1799 just before his birthday.

And he spent five years in south America. And I think that's really important as a private person. He was very wealthy. So he paid for everything himself, but all other explorations before were really done and organized by governments and monarchs. So you had a particular remit. There was something you had to find out that would be good for you or government or your country or your Monarch. Now Humboldt didn't have any of those restraints. He traveled with a very small team.

So he's very nimble when he heard something on the ground, someone local told him, you should go over there. He could just change his itinerary. So he's very flexible. And I think that's something we have to kind of bear in mind. He travels through South America and during this exploration, he realizes and begins to really, truly understand nature as a global force. And that's something we can talk about later. So he's really the first who looks at nature on a global scale, on a very interdisciplinary scale at a time when other scientists are very much obsessed with taxonomy. That's also something we should not forget because for us, this seems like a really normal thing to do now, but then it was not at all.

So he goes on this big exploration, which would always argue, really shaped his life and his thinking and makes him kind of famous across the world. He quickly stops by in DC to meet the President of the United States then goes back to Europe lifts for about 20 years in Paris, because this is really the center of scientific inquiry at that time, then is broke because he spent all his money on his exploration and really has to go back to Berlin, to work for the king there, and then stays there until he dies in 1859 or just a few months short before his 90th birthday, the same year when Darwin publishes the original species. So just to cap his life, when he dies, he is the most famous scientist of his age. 10 years later, the Centennial of his birth is celebrated across the world. Just to you a sense of how famous this man is who many people have never heard about today, when his Centennial was celebrated in New York, there were 25,000 people marching through the streets of Manhattan to unveil a bust in Central Park, which is still there at the Explorer's gate opposite the Natural History Museum, the entire front page of the New York times was dedicated to homeboy. So he was an absolute superstar, rightly so I think. And now we can talk about why he was a superstar.

Michael Garfield (18m 22s): Let's reel all that back to his relationship with Goethe. Goethe was one of these people that had so many foundational and now seemingly very strange ideas about the practice of science. At the time we're not even talking about scientists proper. We're talking about natural philosophers. 

Andrea Wulf (18m 45s): This really depends on your definition. I actually think more and more these days, that science, as they did then, the science, which also allowed your imagination to play an important role. And maybe even your emotional responses, which is obviously something that's not really accepted today, but I would argue that that was for that science quite important for the revelations maybe they all also have. But basically Humboldt is very important for Goethe but maybe good is even more important for Humboldt.

So they meet in 1794 when Humboldt is in his twenties and Goethe in his forties. Goethe is the most famous German poet. He is an international superstar. He's really the God of German literature at that time. And he lives in this tiny little place in Germany Weimer and there's another city next to it which is actually where my new book is set. So Jena is this tiny university town, 4,000 people, but it's a very strange place because it is through kind of inheritance laws.

What was once a dukedom was split so small that there were effectively four rulers ruling this tiny little university with effectively no one in charge. So what happened? Every professor who had problems somewhere in one of the German territories moved to Jena because you basically do their, whatever you wanted. So it becomes this liberal, tiny little spot with these incredible visionary thinkers who all together in this kind of tiny little town.

So Goethe hangs out with them, Goethe loves these young people who come with these amazing ideas. He kind of feels quite old and uncreative. The war’s raging through Europe, but he's also a scientist. He's obsessed with botany. For example, establishes a botanical garden there. He has a rock collection of 18,000 rocks. He's obsessed with color, theory, optics. So he's really into signs. But he feels a bit stale, let's say. And then Humboldt rocks up who’s in his mid-twenties who is very restless, curious person. Humboldt himself describes that he felt as if he was chased by 10,000 pigs.

So there's this kind of drive in him. He never stops. He jumps so quickly from one subject to another that very few people can actually follow him. He's interested in everything, but he's still very much a child of the enlightenment who believes in empirical research. It's all about data. It's all about collecting data. It's all about measuring. That's really what his approach to science is. And then he meets Goethe, and these other young people who live there in Jena and he changes this time in year now completely changes him because these are people who begin to see that subjectivity your senses, your mind, the categories that your mind imposes on the world, all of this is important in order to understand the world.

So the question they're all asking themselves is how do we understand nature? How do we understand the natural world? Is this through rational knowledge that somehow in our brain when we are born or is that something that comes through experience? So they all have kind of different opinions. And in the end, the philosophy that comes out of Jena is a philosophy that believes that the self basically creates at least what we know about the world and they call it the self and the non-self.

So the non-self is everything that's not the self. Now, if you accept that, suddenly your impressions also become important. It's not just what you measure with your scientific instruments. So Goethe is really the person and some of the philosophers there who push Humboldt in another direction. And then there's Schelling, who will meet him there but later who comes up with this nature philosophy, which is taking this philosophy of the self a step further saying, “well, yes, there is the self and the non-self, but that is actually one big unity.”

If this is one big unity, it also means that, and that is what becomes really important for the romantics. If we are the same as nature, then we can also discover ourselves in nature. So this is really the moment when they will start going out, climbing up mountains and finding themselves. So for Humboldt, this idea becomes the nucleus of his thinking that is one big living organism. And we are just a tiny part in this, which then becomes incredibly important for environmental ideas.

And he himself says that in Jena and Goethe that Goethe has given him new organs through which to understand the world. And it's with these new organs that he travels through South America. And these organs also include your feelings, your emotions, and your imagination. At the same time, he carries 42 scientific instruments through Latin America. So it was not admiring the moon going like, “ah, there's nothing so beautiful to my soul in my heart.”

He measures he's a proper, proper scientist. He's obsessed with hard data, but at the same time, he will say my favorite quote is when he says “what escapes the measurements speaks to the soul.” So both is important.

Michael Garfield (24m 23s): There's a line that you quote a Frederick Schelling's “I, myself am identical with nature.” It seems perhaps like a paradox, but I think it's worth exploring. You mentioned the mountain climbing, everyone starts climbing mountains and there is a particularly modern scientific iteration of a very classic human right, which is the spiritual pilgrimage to the mountaintop. And the way that he weaves, like you said, more spiritual or poetic concerns into his process, brings us to the Zenith, both literally and narratively of his life, which happens at the peak of Chimborazo.

This is in Ecuador, right? This mountain, which if I'm remembering this correctly, this was like the tallest summit. 

Andrea Wulf (25m 12s): So it's almost 21,000 feet and it was then believed to be the highest mountain. And in a way it is because it sits almost on the equator. So it's distance to the planet actually makes it better.

Michael Garfield (25m 25s): Your book is full of these extraordinary accounts of Humboldt and his small team of friends and help climbing this peak against all odds, deprived of oxygen, frozen, getting their horses shocked by electric eels. And I mean, not dead like down there, I was like in the Orinoco. His trip is just extraordinary. And he gets to the top, sees something that we take for granted now, when people talk about getting out into space, we talk about the overview effect that astronauts have.

There's only one, I forget who it was, there's like one astronaut that's on public record is saying I was kind of underwhelmed. Like everybody was talking it up. I was just like, “oh yeah, it's the planet.” But everyone else has this literal and metaphorical peak experience. And there's something about what you said about the Jena group and their differentiation between self and non-self that seems to prepare the flow of philosophical thinking into, like a dialectic, it seems like it's first, it's like a thesis antithesis.

And then you bring them together and you say, “I myself am identical with nature.” That's the synthesis. And that that's the move that we see Humboldt take with his essay on the geography of plants and his articulation, that all of these to stand on top of what you believe to be the world's tallest mountain, to look down at the way that the plant ecosystems change as you move up in altitude. And to recognize that it's something's extremely similar in that there's this unity in this convergence going on. You have to get out far enough to see in from a fresh perspective and realize he is presaging somebody like Ed Mitchell or Rusty Schweikert saying this planet.

Andrea Wulf (27m 25s): It's interesting that you actually use the astronauts because very often I showed the Earthrise photo in my lectures because I think it's exactly the same feeling. So no one had ever been so high up as he had. So he has this ability to zoom into the microscopic, but also to kind of zoom out. And I think they're not a lot of people who can actually do that, who have the mind, the very particular mind to go into the tiniest, tiniest detail, but then also have that sense of broad understanding when they zoom out for kind of broad, big ideas and concepts.

And he was definitely someone who could do that. And maybe also very luckily for him, he chose Chimborazo at that particular moment, because it is a mountain that stands on the equator. You have this very extraordinary thing happening that you start off in the valley and it's tropical. You have [inaudible] and fuchsias and you have all these tropical bananas, palm trees, all these tropical plants. And as you move up and that's what he described, it is like a botanical journey from the equator to the pole.

So you do, you have a geographical journey and he literally has an epiphany on the top of Chimborazo maybe slightly induced by altitude sickness. I don't know, but it is a moment when he realizes that everything hangs together because as he goes up to Mirazo, so he sees because he has this extraordinary mind and memory, he sees these plants. He had seen elsewhere in the Alps, in Switzerland, in the Pyrenees on Tenerife. And he makes a connection to like, hold on a second.

I've seen the plant like this somewhere else. He then spends many, many, many years trying to kind of bring all these different plants together and comparing them and understanding that we actually have also global vegetation zones. So again, it's that he uses taxonomy in part because that's how you classify plants, but that's not what he's interested in at all. He needs it as his data, but he's interested in putting these things together.

And for me, one of the great examples is when he looks at climate. Scientists really until then were just taking the temperature. So Thomas Jefferson, for example, is utterly obsessed with metrology. So he takes every single day. He takes the temperature wherever he is and when he's not in Monticello, he asks someone else to do it. So you end up with these notebooks with long, long, long lists of temperature and Humboldt does something very, very different. Humboldt visualizes this. So he compares temperatures at different places in this world.

But instead of having a column for Stockholm column, for Paris, a column for London and for Mexico, he puts this on a map. And what he sees is he invents isotherms, these kind of wavy lines of temperature and humidity and stuff like that. So he understands that global climate zones, which you can only do because you visualize something. And I think in a way, the Jena, the time in Jena has prepared him for that because all of them there talked about imagination as the most important thing.

And the end, they also taught, which I think is really important, which something you touched on earliest, they talked about we have to ATA-size the sciences and that I think is something really important and it works on many levels. So one is the level of Humboldt comes back and describes his journeys like a poet, really. But at the same time, he uses also a scientific data. So and you end up with these books that are really for the general audience, but which combine scientific observation with very evocative, poetic landscape descriptions.

But I think poeticizing the science means also something different. It's not just to write poetically about the sciences. It also means that you allow imagination and genius, artistic genius into the sciences that you roll with it a little bit. You don't just divide it. And you have someone like Humphry Davy, the chemist, who, when you look at his actual manuscripts in his notebooks, you'll see on one side of the notebook, he'll write down the scientific results of his experiments.

And on the other side, he writes his emotional responses to what he's seen. And I think that it's quite important and Humboldt is really very much ahead of his time. 

Michael Garfield (32m 2s): There's another way in which belief in a union or a relationship, depending on kind of how you cook it between science and poetry shows up. I'm really interested in like you said, that the isotherms and the data visualization piece of this and the role of the image and translating an image because I had a conversation about a scientific illustration in college, trying to understand why it is that people still do this rather than just taking photographs.

We have these incredibly sophisticated cameras. Why do you still hire an illustrator? And it was, you need someone to cut out all of the unnecessary detail. You need somebody who knows what's relevant and what's irrelevant. And that requires understanding the audience and the nonlinear path that a fact must take in order to be received, taken up into the network of someone else's brain. Danielle Bassett gave an excellent SFI community lecture about this network, thinking themselves, which we'll link in the show notes about the structure of narrative and how narrative is such a persistent, strongly converge form in human communication, because of the way that we process and take up information.

And you know what? We had Kirell Benzi on the show, Swiss data artist. The talk that he gave at SFI, which we'll link also, was all about this question of how do you get a signal through to someone? It's not just, you know, how do I display this for my own understanding? It's how do I display it for others? I think we got a little bit ahead because the isotherms actually come much after the Naturegemalde, that profile that you have on the spine of the book of Chimborazo and its various climates.

Andrea Wulf (33m 55s): As a writer, of course my task is to tell a story. I mean the word history has the word story in it. There's no point in just me telling the story to myself. So I obviously need my readers, my audience. I want to take them with me for me. That's the fun bit really. So I'm obsessed, for example, with structure. I restructure my books. I spent more time structuring than actually writing. It’s ridiculous and I just pull everything apart.

It's like a game of domino's it all falls apart. I've just taken three chapters apart and it's like, “oh God, what a mess.” But I think it's incredibly important if the structure works well, you don't notice it at all because it just flows. And in a way in science, I think it's even more important because science is difficult for non-scientific people like me. So science communication is so essential, especially, dare I say, in a pandemic or even more when it comes to climate change because there's no point in doing all the science when you don't get everybody on this planet to go along with you.

And that only will work if you touch them somehow. And I would argue that it's not always the scary numbers. Sometimes it's about visualizing something. So there's for example, there's this amazing Belfast artist, he's called Robin Prize. What he does is through experimental photography he can visualize the fine particulate matter that's so harmful and they look like little twinkly fairy lights. So he takes a photograph say for example, of the coast of Mexico, because of Wales where there's hardly any air pollution and you just see like a few little twinkles and then Mexico city, and then like new Delhi, it's just a carpet or fairy lights.

So for me, as it in a non-number person that was so much more, a kind of brutal realization of air pollution than if you'd given me the equivalent numbers to those three places. And so I think we need power. We need artists. We need musicians to all deal with this. So it is about visualization. It's about communicating. There's no point in just knowing what's happening if you are a scientist. Surely the communication I don't know if you even call it an audience, but to, you know, your fellow human beings is very important at least in certain fields.

And I think Humboldt was excellent at that. So the Naturegemälde, which is essentially a drawing of a cross-section of Chimborazo, which has drawn in all the plant names of the plants he found at the exact altitude where he had found them. And then to the left and to the right, you have 20 columns, which are filled with scientific data of all the stuff you measured, basically, as he was going up from humidity, temperature, the blueness of the sky, the chemical components of the air, all these kind of things, or drawn into the columns at the altitude where he had measured it.

So what you can do is you can trace a line across say at 10,000 feet and you get all the information that is now they surely think about this is that it's basically a poster. It's packed with complex scientific data, but it's super easy to understand. Everybody can understand it. You don't need to be a scientist. He is targeting very much not the scientist in the ivory tower. He's targeting everybody. That's why his books are huge international bestsellers.

Michael Garfield (37m 32s): EO Wilson says the ideal scientist thinks like a poet works like a bookkeeper and all too rarely writes like a journalist. I want to, at this point, draw a distinction between the way that he so effectively communicated in his writing and in his imagery and the way that he actually took notes and wrote because you have this wonderful passage on page 230 of the paperback version where you show his lecture notes and how it's like pieces. He wrote the thing and then he scrawled in the margins and then he started putting notes on them.

And then he stuck notes onto the notes. And it looks like when I had Mark Moffett on the show to talk about canopy biology and about like the way you go down to the Amazon and you see trees growing on trees, growing on trees. The soil on the branches is thicker than the soil on the ground. And that's what it looks like. That's what, in a way, again, speaking back to this sort of proto-cybernetic, understanding of sense impressions and the inner workings of mind as related intimately to the outer world. It's like he actually explicated the tangled inner workings of the mind that are themselves an evolutionary hypothesis about our tangled environment.

You know what Charles Darwin called the tangled bank. In order to communicate that you do not, as I have on many mistaken occasions done myself, you do not just throw that out in front of people and expect them to make sense of it. You map the twisting rivers and the winding forests, and then you cut a trail through them. You're able to use that landscape in order to identify a path of lowest entropy or whatever through this wilderness of ideas. And it's just a really beautiful thing there.

Andrea Wulf (39m 22s): I'm obsessed with manuscripts because I think we can learn so much by it. So I don't understand historians who don't go into an archive because I think it reveals so much that it's otherwise hidden. If you think about how you write, for example, how you take notes, it shows something. And some people are really super tidy and others, you see their highlighters and order it and others, you know, total mess. So Humboldt’s multilayered, collages of thoughts. I think the only way I can describe it for me, shows that his mind, he doesn't think linear.

You know, he thinks like he understands nature. It's a weapon, everything branches out, everything is connected. And this is one of the reasons why I wanted to do or why I did the Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, the graphic novel, which is really not a graphic novel, but it was just like some weird illustrated hybrid, which I've kind of refusing to categorize in a way. Humboldt came back with 4,000 pages from his diary and with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of drawings and sketches. So he was very much someone who understood nature by visualizing it by drawing it.

So you talking about how, why do we need scientific illustrator? Because they extract something also, which is important. I think a lot of scientists also draw because that's a way for them to make sense of something that you sometimes can't make sense of with words, but you can do visually. And when you look at his papers, at his manuscripts, you realize just how important this all is for him. So I wanted to do a book that showed this, that showed all the stuff I couldn't show in the invention of nature, which is, you know, more kind of traditional book and you see how he takes deeper through drawing, but you also see how he writes.

I mean, he has terrible handwriting, but how he writes something like in the corner and then in another corner, and then he sticks something on top. And then you have this extraordinary system of filing, which might sound boring, but bear with me. So his filing system, I think it's basically a computer. It's so clever. So here is, and then amazingly kept it like this. So in the archives in Berlin, you get out these boxes. He called them boxes box eight box, whatever box nine, box nine B.

And in that box, you have open envelopes which have also titles, so say a box is called Slavery. Then you have in that box, an envelope that is called Sugar because of course sugar has to do with slavery. Now in that envelope, but sugar, he will have something about the botany of the plants. He will have something about work conditions, all these kinds of different things. So he would get a letter from someone who worked at a slave plantation in the West Indies with botanical information.

So that goes into the envelope, sugar, botany or something like that. And then he would have someone write him something about the health effect it had on slaves or something. And then he has this kind of box slavery, and then he starts writing his books. And so he can just take out this box and he can use it, but he can file it like a page from a book. He has never problems with tearing our pages from books, put that in a newspaper articular letter, but then he does writing another essay or another book.

And suddenly it is about the botany of I'm making this up now, the botany of the west Indies. So you can just take the envelope out of the slavery box and he can put it into the box botany of the West Indies. So he has this vast archive of information, but he can resort it and refile it, according to the project he's working on which is keywording basically in an analog way, which I think is so clever, which allows him to make these connections, which I think other people can't do because they have a different filing system.

Michael Garfield (43m 26s): I wanted to get into some of the ways that he helped pioneer the practices of what we think of as more contemporary, even like 21st century science. And one of them is this, the keyword operations that notion that Humboldt unites a whole academy within him, that he couldn't pick a given discipline. Like you said, he's at home in powers of 10, like swinging through the micro to the macro and, and back. And this is like, of course back when computers were still people. That was a job description.

So it's just interesting. There's like the two scales that he's operating at a time when extraordinary individuals were capable of this quote unquote Renaissance kind of thinking yet, it sounds reading your book like he knew, he says without a diversity of opinion, that discovery of truth is impossible. Even to be fully self-contained an academy within you, you still need to reach out and forge what sounded like kind of one of the first interdisciplinary working groups, which was the magnetic crusade.

He was holding salons where he was bringing people together and these kinds of pre- sentiments of large international collaborations and so on. It's interesting again, because it's this it again, echoes the organization that you're talking about here, in terms of the way his own mind sort of echoes the structures of the environments that he was exploring and how that's each of us contains multitudes, but also participates in society.

And then that kind of thinking lends itself to some more like speculative stuff I want to put a pin in for later because I think it's when you get to the natural religion of Ernst Haeckel and questions about the sort of transcendent component here, I think it's really fascinating.

Andrea Wulf (45m 20s): I think Humboldt lives at a very particular moment and dies at a very particular moment. So he dies in 1859. So I think he's pretty much the last great polymath because after that, it's absolutely impossible for one person to hold all this knowledge in one head and towards the end of his life, he's really, really struggling already to just keep it all together. Even with his great filing system. There's a reason that Humboldt wrote 50,000 letters and he received a hundred thousand letters.

So he surely believes in sharing knowledge. This is about finding out what's going on. This is not about I'm finding it out. This is about, let's find it out, us, together. I want to know. This is what drives in this deep, deep curiosity. So he always opens up his notebook. So there are great moments when Charles Lyell, for example, comes in 1823 to Paris, this kind of young geologists, not really not known at all.

And Humboldt gives him all the information he has about volcanoes and South America, which is very important for Lyell, later on. So he shares, but he's also expecting others to share with him. So he gets very, very excited when they're talking about telegrams and they kind of the telegraph, the cable, because he can just imagine, you can just call someone in America to find something out because obviously he has to write a letter and he has to find out, but he has this army of helpers, which are fellow scientists. So he never allowed to travel to India.

The British basically don't want this Prussian troublemaker commenting on colonialism as he had done in South America. So he is not allowed to go to India, but he needs to compare the Himalaya with the Andes. He assists the British botanist Hooker to go to the Himalaya. And then the poor man is bombarded with letters by Humboldt who literally will write and say, would you mind going up this mountain slope on the Southern side? And we're going to tell you which plant is growing on, which, which altitude, because he needs that information.

Or he will do stuff where he, because he can also be quite obnoxious. He publishes his book so that later on, when he published his cosmos and that huge sections of astronomical observations in there, and he will get approved from his printer without the figures. And he will send that to an astronomer. And he like, can you just fill in the numbers? It's really kind of everybody working together. It's an international collaboration and he's always very open about this. And when he doesn't understand something, he has no problem saying that. So at some stage she doesn't quite understand Michael Faraday’s new theories and he doesn't quite get it. This is when he's quite old already. So you just get someone else to explain it to him, which I think shows any age 70, he goes back to university. Isn't that amazing? Because there is young geologists and young chemists who have all this new stuff to talk about. And how am I going to find this out? Well, I'm just going to sit at the lecture hall and I'm going to listen to it.

And it's just brilliant. 

Michael Garfield (48m 32s): I actually wanted to raise that. It was Wilhelm his brother, right? Who founded the college that he then attended in his, his old age.

Andrea Wulf (48m 40s): It's a fascinating university in Berlin, amazingly the Prussian capital didn't have a university until 1810. 

Michael Garfield (48m 48s): You talk about the students who would joke that, “oh, he's not in class today.” He must be advising the king because that's like when he was still on Royal dispensation, that is a lifetime learning to which I think we might all wish to aspire. And it is the kind of thing in an age of rapid change and explosive discovery. It does seem like that's what's demanded of us. He was right there at the threshold of being able to hold it all in himself. And at the end, the older he gets, the less he can rely on his own ability to traverse.

It's not just political reasons. It's just, he's in an aging body and you start to see him almost become the organizing hub or the nucleus of this vast cybernetic research conglomerate. 

Andrea Wulf (49m 36s): If you think about like today, it's so difficult to be interdisciplinary, you know, as in one person, because everybody has to be so specialized. So instead of a Humboldt, we have to have groups of people, which I think this is the amazing thing about the Institute, because you have these people together and then, you get people. They even invite people like me, historians. You're not scientists because there is some cross-fertilization going on between all of this. And you never know about the serendipity of sitting next to someone at, at lunch talking about something you have absolutely no idea. Sometimes you also don't understand the word, but in a then you kind of ask and you ask more and then someone will explain it to you. And then it's almost like these little tentacles was to go into another discipline. And through that, it's like a little tube. You collect up a little bit of that knowledge. Just have to have enough of those tentacles to hold it all together I think. Someone will know something enough to feed the next person to get a little bit of that discipline.

Michael Garfield (50m 42s): Thank you for listening. Complexities produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex systems science located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts research links and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts, visit