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UW Professor's Perspective Published in Science

May 1, 2009

A University of Wyoming professor's retrospective on the career of Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer who is widely considered as one of the founders of modern geography, was published today (Friday) in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Stephen T. Jackson's commentary provides an overview of von Humboldt's vast contributions to science, particularly earth system sciences, which Jackson describes as "the integrated system of knowledge on which the human society may depend in the face of global climate change."

The 150th anniversary of von Humboldt's death is May 4.

"It's important for all of us -- scientists and citizens -- to know the roots of our knowledge. Few ideas -- even in science -- are truly novel. Earth system science emerged only 15 years ago when scientists realized we needed to link numerous disciplines to deal with global climate change," says Jackson, a professor in the UW Department of Botany. "But Humboldt actually laid the foundation for earth system science 200 years ago with his ‘Essay on the Geography of Plants.' I think scientists, and the rest of us, need to know that."

He adds, "Humboldt wanted science to be useful to society. I'm sure he'd be pleased to learn that the sciences he helped create are helping us confront the threats of global change."

Born in Berlin in 1769, von Humboldt shaped his career during a five-year journey (1799-1804) through Latin America during which he and botanist Aime Bonpland collected botanical, zoological, geological and ethnological specimens and made extensive atmospheric and geophysical measurements.

One of von Humboldt's scientific counterparts of the 19th century, Charles Darwin, once described him as "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived."

Jackson says both Darwin and von Humboldt "stand out for creating the intellectual world we live in today."

Oddly, though, the two scientists are rarely considered in the same company.
    "Darwin is rightly feted across the world -- 2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his great book, ‘On the Origin of Species,'" says Jackson. "But, inconceivably, Humboldt is largely forgotten 150 years after his death in 1859."

In addition to his commentary in Science, Jackson also recently finished editing an English translation of one of von Humboldt's most important works. It is scheduled to be published in June.

Science is the world's leading journal of original scientific research, global news and commentary. For more information, go to the official Web site at

Posted on Friday, May 01, 2009

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