How Humboldt resurrected the word Cosmos

Etymologically speaking, cosmos derived from the Greek word kosmos that means order or world. But we don’t deliberately use this word to mean the holistic interactions within the universe until Alexander von Humboldt used it in his five-volume treatise Kosmos.

An obsessive note-taker, Humboldt traveled from Germany to South America to explore, observe, and record the minutia details of nature; from the ocean current in the coast of Peru, to the ruins of Inca, to the hostile Orinoco River in Venezuela where he named new species of plants and animals. Together with French botanist Aime Bonpland, they climbed one of the highest volcanoes in Equador, Mt. Chimborazo, to record changes in air pressures and temperatures, laying the foundation for future scientists to investigate the relationship between the living organisms and their habitat. He gave us a map of various vegetation zones, a color-coded map of terrain with its corresponding plants; perhaps the first of its kind, thus kick-starting the era of data visualization that we know and still widely used today.

Charles Darwin adored him, saying:

I am at present fit only to read Humboldt. He, like another sun, illuminates everything I behold.

Thomas Jefferson claimed he is the single greatest and most influential scientist. In 1869, on his 100th year, the whole world celebrated him and his achievements. San Francisco celebrated his centennial with 3-day parties, New York cherished him together with 25,000 people; there were parties in Egypt, Moscow, and Mexico.

Yet, he is now largely forgotten, and his love for nature is subdued by our pragmatist, ambitious, and often self-centered kind of love for science.

In 1845, after decades of explorations on his feet at the most intimate places of nature, from South America to Russia, he published a compilation of his studies in the five-volume books titled Kosmos. The first book reflects on the cosmic bond between the Sky and the Earth, beyond its astrology and man-made beliefs; the second book discusses the history of science, and in the third to the final books, Humboldt detailed his scientific discoveries in astronomy, biogeography, and geological formations.

It is through this book that the word cosmos was popularized as the natural yet heavenly order of things, cosmos as in the interconnectedness between all elements in life, a kind of butterfly effect; resurrecting the word after centuries of sleep, of being diminished into mere ornamental vocabulary, like cosmetics.

Echoing Pythagoras’s sentiment that there is eminent beauty in the order of the cosmos and who once said:

There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres,

Humboldt replenished our love for nature, which is to him the driving force towards all kinds of understanding, at a time when science was seen through a narrow lens of classification. He was the man that brings forth the idea of unity in nature, an idea that we are so familiar with today to the point that we often stumble and take it for granted.

He was the kind of scientist we aren’t familiar with; without a uniformed white lab coat, goggles, and mechanical tools. He was a scientist we can all relate to and perhaps, secretly aspire to be; he was an obsessive observer, meticulous note-taker, a lover. Humboldt was an exemplary example that scientists should be out and in constant interaction with nature, drink in nature’s endless inspirations, and not merely locked in echo-chamber labs. Janna Levin, a novelist and an astrophysicist, also gave a similar sentiment that “all kids are scientists, and all kids are artists. They all read. How is it that we give up such big things?”

And isn’t this the kind of scientific language and relationship we thirst for? Few scientists have come to this level, yet they are the most remarkably remembered; Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein. From time to time we are needed reminders that science isn’t just a mere tool to build technology to improve our lives, but it is also a way of understanding our own lives and our place in the cosmos.

To close this off, here’s Humboldt, at the age of 60, traversing the breadth of Russia:

I still walk very lightly on foot, nine to ten hours without resting, despite my age and my white hair.

Blog_Humboldt
Humboldt’s vegetation profiles of Chimborazo, Mont Blanc and Sulitelma 


P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

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