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The Invention of Nature

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa & Royal Society Prize Winner

By Andrea Wulf

  • Hardback
  • £25.00

Before Longitude no one remembered John Harrison. The Invention of Nature does the same for Alexander von Humboldt

WINNER OF THE 2015 COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD

WINNER OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY SCIENCE BOOK PRIZE 2016

WINNER OF THE 2017 DINGLE PRIZE

'Dazzling' Literary Review

'Brilliant' Sunday Express

'Extraordinary and gripping' New Scientist

'A superb biography' The Economist

'An exhilarating armchair voyage' GILES MILTON, Mail on Sunday

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist - more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there's a penguin, a giant squid - even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

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 Bolívar'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.

Biographical Notes

Andrea Wulf was born in India, moved to Germany as a child, and now lives in England. She is the author of several acclaimed books. The Brother Gardeners won the American Horticultural Society Book Award and was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Her book Founding Gardeners was on the New York Times bestseller list. Andrea has written for many newspapers including the Guardian, LA Times and New York Times. She was the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence 2013 and a three-time fellow of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. She appears regularly on TV and radio.

  • Other details

  • ISBN: 9781848548985
  • Publication date: 22 Oct 2015
  • Page count: 496
  • Imprint: John Murray
A big, magnificent, adventurous book - so vividly written and daringly researched - a geographical pilgrimage and an intellectual epic! Brilliant, surprising, and thought-provoking . . . a major achievement — RICHARD HOLMES, author of The Age of Wonder and Coleridge
A truly wonderful book . . . Andrea Wulf has told the tale with such brio, such understanding, such depth. The physical journeyings, all around South America when it was virtually terra incognita, are as exciting as the journeys of Humboldt's mind into astronomy, literature, philosophy and every known branch of science. This is one of the most exciting intellectual biographies I have ever read, up there with Lewes's Goethe and Ray Monk's Wittgenstein — A N Wilson
Andrea Wulf's marvellous book should put this captivating eighteenth century German scientist, traveller and opinion-shaper back at the heart of the way we look at the world . . . irresistible and consistently absorbing life of a man whose discoveries have shaped the way we see — MIRANDA SEYMOUR, author of Noble Endeavours: A History of England and Germany
Andrea Wulf is a writer of rare sensibilities and passionate fascinations. I always trust her to take me on unforgettable journeys through amazing histories of botanical exploration and scientific unfolding. Her work is wonderful, her language sublime, her intelligence unflagging — ELIZABETH GILBERT, author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love
Engrossing . . . Wulf successfully combines biography with an intoxicating history of his times — Kirkus
Extraordinary, and often still sadly relevant too — Wanderlust
The phrase 'lost hero of science' in the subtitle of [Wulf's] book is no exaggeration . . . A big book about a big subject, written with scholarship and enthusiasm — Irish Examiner
In her coruscating account, historian Andrea Wulf reveals an indefatigable adept of close observation with a gift for the long view — Nature
[A] gripping study . . . No one who reads this brilliant book is likely to forget Humboldt — New Scientist
This book sets out to restore Humboldt to his rightful place in the pantheon of natural scientists. In the process Wulf does a great deal more. This meticulously researched work - part biography, part cabinet of curiosity - takes us on an exhilarating armchair voyage through some of the world's least hospitable regions — Giles Milton, Mail on Sunday
Thrilling . . . It is impossible to read The Invention of Nature without contracting Humboldt fever. Wulf makes Humboldtians of us all . . . At times The Invention of Nature reads like pulp explorer fiction . . . She has gone to near-Humboldtian lengths to research her book — New York Review of Books
Engrossing . . . Andrea Wulf magnificently recreates Humboldt's dazzling, complex personality and the scope of his writing — Wall Street Journal
A rollicking adventure story . . . a fascinating history of ideas, in which Wulf leads us expertly along a series of colourful threads that emanate from the great tapestry of Humboldt's life and work . . . What really fascinated me about The Invention of Nature is how relevant Humboldt's ideas are today . . . Arriving in South America, Darwin took his first steps in the tropical forest and exclaimed: "I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him". Readers of Wulf's marvellous new book may feel the same way — Financial Times
Wulf's telling of his life reads like a Who's Who of his age . . . in its mission to rescue Humboldt's reputation from the crevasse he and many other German writers and scientists fell into after the Second World War, it succeeds — Independent on Sunday
Wulf's biography is a magnificent work of resurrection, beautifully researched, elegantly written, a thrilling intellectual odyssey — Sunday Times
Wulf's brilliant biography traces [Humboldt's] daring travels in South America and across the Andes, his sojourns in Berlin, Paris and London, and the intellectual circles he moved in — Sunday Express
Andrea Wulf is clearly as passionate about this remarkable man as his peers and successors were, and she does an impressive job of capturing the scale and scope of Humboldt's substantial achievements — Press Association
In a superb biography, Andrea Wulf makes an inspired case for Alexander von Humboldt to be considered the greatest scientist of the 19th century . . . Ecologists today, Ms Wulf argues, are Humboldtians at heart. With the immense challenge of grasping the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt's interdisciplinary approach is more relevant than ever — The Economist
We all know who Darwin was because he came up with that memorable line about us all being descended from apes, but, as he himself would readily have admitted, the great man would never have arrived at his great theory had it not been for the very considerable influence of Alexander von Humboldt . . . Given the magnitude of his influence, why Humboldt isn't a household name today is a mystery . . . On the evidence of this wonderful book, however, he should be hastily added to every school syllabus in the land — Scotsman
Darwin pronounced him the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived, but the brilliant German Alexander von Humboldt left no groundbreaking theory or world-changing book. Wulf sets out to restore his diminished reputation, and has given us the most complete portrait of one of the world's most complete naturalists — Mark Cocker, The Spectator, Books of the Year
Wulf's narrative relates Humboldt's life and ideas at a good pace and with a strong eye for the details which will attract the reader's attention — TLS
Wulf imbues Humboldt's adventures there with something of the spirit of Tintin, relishing the jungles, mountains and dangerous animals at every turn . . . [she] has an unfailing ability to spot an interesting quotation or a curious situation. She is very good on the cities where Humboldt lived and the rival atmospheres of Paris and Berlin . . . a superior celebration of an adorable figure — Guardian
This ambitious book restores Humboldt to his rightful place in the pantheon of scientific history. The best chapters describe his exciting travels — Lady
Humboldt's vision became the inspiration for Darwin and a whole generation of American Romantics, including Thoreau and Poe. Humboldt, like Einstein, breathed life into Kant's transcendental unity. We still live in the world they imagined, even if few of us comprehend it — Telegraph
Wulf writes about complicated topics with lucidity and vitality. The Invention of Nature is a book of ideas, which repays careful reading. The intuitive yet systematising genius, courage and charm of Humboldt also make this a most inspiring book — The Times
Andrea Wulf's superb biography is a re-evaluation of a great lost scientist whose thinking strongly affected the way we now conceptualise nature . . . His extensive travels mean his biography is also an adventure story, and Wulf combines scrapes and the science to great effect — Independent
Read Andrea Wulf's gripping biography and you will be wowed by him too. If Humboldt doesn't win prizes I'll eat my party hat — New Scientist, Books of the Year
An absolutely stupendous biography — A.N. Wilson, Evening Standard, Books of the Year
Evocative descriptions of his expeditions . . . delightful stories . . . Wulf's stories of wilderness adventure and academic exchange flow easily, and her affection for von Humboldt is contagious — Publishers Weekly, Books of the Year
Wulf offers a highly readable account of the German scientist's monumental journey in the Americas — 100 Notable Books of 2015, New York Times
Engaging and accomplished — Sunday Times
Explorer, polymath, friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolívar, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. His ideas are as relevant today as they ever were — The Economist, Books of the Year
The real achievement of this wonderful biography is that it is as much a rattling good read as it is an explicit attempt to revive Humboldt's reputation . . . [Wulf] offers us the most complete picture of one of most complete naturalists who has ever lived — New Statesman
Stimulating biography . . . The Invention of Nature elegantly captures a cosmopolitan who straddled the Enlightenment and Romanticism — Country Life
Colourful and engaging — Sunday Telegraph
Explorer, polymath, friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolívar, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. His ideas are as relevant today as they ever were — The Economist
Like Humboldt himself, The Invention of Nature, is scholarly but extremely good fun — The Times, Books of the Year
Wulf does [Humbolt] full justice, bringing his extraordinary and colourful life to a new generation. Based on enormous research, it is the first real biography of this great figure in English and it provides much fascinating detail without overloading the narrative. I can't recommend it highly enough — Morning Star
Wulf takes English speaking readers on a fulsome tour of Humboldt and those he influenced . . . She has travelled in Humboldt's footsteps and made good use of original German evidence. I have much enjoyed my eco-tour through the planet world in her company — Financial Times
In this illuminating, vivid biography, historian and writer Andrea Wulf reveals a great explorer a century or more ahead of his time . . . a cracking read — BBC Wildlife Magazine
A pleasure to read . . . Buckle up and prepare yourself for Andrea Wulf's hugely enjoyable voyage of discovery . . . [a] rip-roaring yarn — Ecologist
Full of vivid renditions of his feats, the narrow mountain paths he trod, the rapid rivers in which he almost drowned, and the exotic ailments from which he suffered . . . much more than an adventure story . . . well-informed and astute . . . among the most attractive features of The Invention of Nature is Wulf's infectious admiration for her subject — London Review of Books
Masterly — Daily Mail
A superior celebration of an adorable figure — Guardian
The decisive factor for the winning book was that it excited and gripped us as judges the most. The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is a thrilling adventure story as much as a science book about a polymath who had an extraordinary impact on our contemporary understanding of nature. It is a book you will find yourself talking endlessly about with friends in the pub — Bill Bryson, chairman of the judges for the Royal Society Prize 2016
Humboldt may not be well known today but he remains very much of our time: his work tackled many of today's big issues like climate change and biodiversity loss and the interconnectedness of nature. Moreover, he was a polymath who was curious about everything and was a superb communicator. His interdisciplinary approach puts paid to the ridiculous notion that science and the arts are separate entities. We should be taking our cues from Humboldt - be curious and be informed by science on the big issues — Brian Cox
When I read The Invention of Nature, long before it was nominated for the Royal Society prize, it was obvious that it was a contender for major honors. It was deeply researched and reported; it told a fine and little known story; it connected the personal to a big idea, and the past to a very pressing present-day concern — The Atlantic
Concise, well-written and extensively researched book . . . vivid, atmospheric and engrossing, a beautiful portrait — Tribune
[A] gripping account of Alexander von Humboldt's synthesis of the science of the natural world — Stephen Curry, Guardian 'Favourite reads of 2016 as chosen by scientists'
In this meticulously researched and beautifully written biography, Andrea Wulf skilfully rescues Alexander von Humboldt from his undeserved obscurity as she chronicles his long and fascinating life — Forbes.com, 10 Best Popular Science Books of 2016
Deep scholarship and entertaining writing style. The Invention of Nature is highly recommended — ICON
Historians of science have long recognized the naturalist and traveller Alexander von Humboldt as a pivotal figure in the history of science, but for too long he has been undervalued in the English-speaking world. This beautifully written biography effectively conveys his significance to a wide audience, in an animated and adventurous narrative that echoes the liveliness of Humboldt's own writings. The award of the Dingle Prize particularly recognizes Andrea Wulf's mastery of the vast range of history of science scholarship on Humboldt and her command of original sources in multiple languages. Timely and significant-particularly given current attacks on climate change science - this is scientific biography at its best — Winner of the 2017 Dingle Prize
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