Colin Thubron at The New York Times:
Alexander von Humboldt was the pre-eminent scientist of his time. Contemporaries spoke of him as second in fame only to Napoleon. All over the Americas and the English-speaking world, towns and rivers are still named after him, along with mountain ranges, bays, waterfalls, 300 plants and more than 100 animals. There is a Humboldt glacier, a Humboldt asteroid, a Humboldt hog-nosed skunk. Off the coast of Peru and Chile, the giant Humboldt squid swims in the Humboldt Current, and even on the moon there is an area called Mare Humboldtianum. Darwin called him the “greatest scientific traveler who ever lived.”
Yet today, outside Latin America and Humboldt’s native Germany, his name has receded into near oblivion. His insights have become so ingested by modern science that they may no longer seem astonishing. As Andrea Wulf remarks in her arresting “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World,” “it is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”
This formidable genius was born in 1769 to a Prussian court official and a forceful mother of Huguenot descent. He was brought up in the shadow of his precocious elder brother, Wilhelm, a linguist and philosopher, but Alexander flowered into a brilliant polymath: a slight, apparently delicate man driven by furious ambition and insecurity.