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A world of learning

The small publishing house Eichborn regrets that “whereas the Bible is sold off at any supermarket, Alexander von Humboldt's counter-theories to the holy writings are hard to find even in the largest of book shops”. In the hope of correcting this, Eichborn is republishing three of the explorer-scientist's most important works.

Von Humboldt, born in 1769, remains one of Germany's most important intellectual figures. Deeply committed to Enlightenment principles, he was a collector of knowledge. He travelled extensively, learning the language of each country he visited. He was an internationalist, and persuaded Prussia's King Friedrich Wilhelm IV to inaugurate, in 1842, the Order Pour le mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste, the first such civilian society in war-torn Europe to recognize individual academic achievement across borders.

His massive tome Kosmos was an attempt to synthesize all the knowledge of the physical world, from thousands of different sources, including his own scientific travels. It was illustrated with maps like the one shown here, describing not only geography but also geology, biology and anthropology. Kosmos was a thirty-year labour of love, and von Humboldt was reportedly still adding to it on his dying day, aged 89. The work was a best seller in the nineteenth century, and was translated into many languages. But it faded from view in the twentieth century, and few Germans today have read the original words.

The publication of Kosmos marks the 200th anniversary of Humboldt's return from his five-year exploration of the Americas. The two companion volumes are Ansichten der Natur (Views of Nature) and the sumptuously illustrated Ansichten der Kordilleren und Monumente der eingeborenen Völker Amerikas (Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the indigenous American Peoples), which has, in fact, never previously been published in German.

Alison Abbott

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A world of learning. Nature 431, 631 (2004).

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