Alexander von Humboldt: the last man to know everything

Thomas Jefferson had just purchased Louisiana from the French for America. But he had purchased it without knowing the exact borders of the land. And he knew nothing about the Spanish territories that now shared the border: what their military strength was like, and what they traded in.

It was Alexander von Humboldt who filled him in on all of these details while he was travelling through Washington DC. Humboldt had travelled through Spanish America before that. And had kept a diary. The length of the diary? 4000 pages!

Jefferson called Humboldt “the most scientific man of the age!”

When Charles Darwin was working on his theory of evolution, he stumbled upon Humboldt’s work that helped him immensely. Humboldt had observed that the same type of plants lived at similar elevation levels on mountains in Europe as well as America. The Andean mountains in South America had similar vegetation to the Alps in Europe. Darwin’s idea solidified when he realized that different species evolve in similar ways in similar conditions! 

Darwin kept on rereading Humboldt’s books!

The greatest of polymaths

Physicist Karl Pearson called Humboldt the last person to know everything! He was one of the last great polymaths! Ralph Waldo Emerson called him one of the wonders of the world!

While travelling through Venezuela, Humboldt saw how locals caught electric eels. They would go in the shallow waters on horses and get eels to discharge their electric shocks after being disturbed. Once the eels were exhausted, the locals would pick them up.

Humboldt was able to study and understand animal electricity. He connected the fields of physics and biology when he took Alessandro Volta’s voltaic pile device to measure the eels electric currents. Humboldt also made connections between behaviour of eels and other electricity discharging animals like the torpedo rays.

Humboldt’s work wasn’t only in science however. When Prussia had lost against Napoleon Bonaparte, Humboldt was sent to Paris to renegotiate the war reparations. And when Humboldt was put in charge of a gold mine, he increased its productivity by eight-fold in a single year!

He experimented on dead frogs and autopsied corpses. He shook hands with kings and presidents. And travelled from Europe to the Americas to the borders of China. He published comprehensive books on botany, astronomy, zoology, Cuba and Mexico and a whole lot of other subjects! And everyone who met him thought of him as the best scientist who had ever lived!

Humboldtian Science

Humboldt was extremely curious. Read extensively and cultivated ideas across various fields. He collaborated with a lot of people, and wrote letters and shared information with many experts. Which all helped make him excellent at science. But it was his systematic way of going about doing science that made him so prolific. 

Humboldt travelled with a whole host of scientific equipment. And he was very diligent in measuring everything he could. He measured temperature, humidity, and air pressure wherever he travelled in the Americas.

One day back in Europe, he was going through his data and found an anomaly: the average temperature at different locations on similar latitudes varied widely!

Before him, everyone thought that latitudes affected climate.

So Humboldt started collecting data for various places in Europe too. And then he started charting it on a map. And then he started connecting all the places with similar climates with a line.

That’s when he found that latitudes are not the only thing that affect climate. Ocean currents, land elevation, prevailing winds all affected climate!

Studying this connection between temperature and geography is what led to the whole field of climatology and meteorology.

The 3 step systematic process to create breakthroughs

So is there a system that Humboldt used to come up with breakthroughs after breakthroughs?

Yes! We can deconstruct Humboldt’s work and find that he did 3 things:

1. Observe and measure extensively.

Humboldt had a whole bag of tools he travelled with that helped him with measuring everything around him! Everything from chronometers, telescopes, sextants, microscopes, magnetic compasses, thermometers, hygrometers, barometers, electrometers, and eudiometers! What’s more, he had multiple units of the same instrument – so that he could catch errors!

Even when he worked at the gold mine, he religiously collected data on production output and worker productivity.

2. Pattern matching. 

Humboldt always looked at data and tried to find connections between them. What is this similar to? What is this different from?

He used new tools like graphs and isomaps and statistics to find connections and similarities as well as differences and errors in data.

At the gold mine, his data showed which worker was good and which was a laggard. It also showed him that in some regions of the mine, worker productivity would always be low – even if the best workers were sent there.

3. Finding and testing a unified theory.

And then he would posit a theory. Something that would unify all the data. If the data didn’t fit the theory, then the theory was wrong and he would work on finding a better theory.

At the gold mine, Humboldt increased safety lamps and designed better ventilation especially in regions where productivity was low. He started a school for miners. And he started an emergency fund for miners that would help them in case of accidents!

His theory was simple: motivate the miners. Improve things for them and the mine productivity would improve.

Action Summary:

  • Take a data-driven approach to work. Collect more data than you need, find patterns, test a theory.