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The world celebrated the centenary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth like we celebrated y2k about two decades ago. Places as far apart from each other as Mexico, Melbourne, San Francisco or Alexandria, in Egypt, on the same day, September 14, 1869, held rambunctious events commemorating the life of a man that some considered the most famous scientist in the world… and others, the most important in history.
Parades organized in his name snaked their way through dozens of cities. Twenty thousand people turned out in New York’s Central Park; 80,000 took to the streets of his hometown, Berlin. This isn’t the era of Live Aid and World Cup finals we’re talking about. Back then, in the late 1800s, crowds weren’t that big… cities weren’t that big either, for that matter. The fact that a single man was able to unite, in synchronicity, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe (a globe without internet or telephones, although there was Morse code (something which Humboldt himself had a little something to do with)) is remarkable. The world gathered as never before around one man’s legacy. There was some poetry in that, for sure. If there was a mind capable of uniting the world, that mind would have had to be Humboldt’s.
Aside from the names of streets and lunar craters and rivers, glaciers, bays, orchids, penguins, beetles, currents, asteroids and mountains that honor him today (no-one has lent his or her name to more places and species in the world than Alexander von Humboldt), his brilliant mind and writings became a lodestar for an entire epoch in history. Even kings in places like Thailand hung his portrait in their palaces. Some of the world’s most renowned historical figures made great efforts to pay Humboldt a visit. From Darwin — who would not have embarked on the Beagle if it were not for Humboldt’s books — to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet, who said Humboldt’s eyes were both telescopes and microscopes.
In life, Humboldt was already a giant of a man. People lined up in Parisian cafés to get within at least earshot of his discourses. He had a movie-star magnetism… a monument to human knowledge whose passing conversations were as grandiose as symposium speeches, capable of linking, in a single, fluid sentence, politics, art and the highest scientific concepts of his era.
One hundred years after his birth, ten years after his death, the world was still in awe of him. Today many ask themselves: now who was Humboldt? And why should we care?