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Humboldt, (Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich) Alexander, Freiherr

study wide geophysics travel

(Baron) von (1769–1859) German explorer: pioneer of geophysics and meteorology.

Humboldt had wide scientific interests and a passion for travel, and was wealthy enough to indulge both his enthusiasms. His father, a Prussian soldier, wished him to enter politics, but the boy preferred to study engineering; while doing so he was attracted to botany and moved to Göttingen to study science. He seems to have been happiest with geology, and spent 2 years at a school of mining before working as a mining engineer, when he devised and tested safety lamps and rescue apparatus. Then in 1796 he inherited enough money to travel, but the Napoleonic Wars frustrated him until 1799, when he began an epic exploration of central and south America. He covered over 6000 often dangerous miles with his friend, the botanist A Bonpland (1773–1858), before returning to Europe with a large collection of scientific specimens and observations after 5 years of absence. Analysis of his results, along with some diplomatic missions, kept him busy for the next 20 years. His wide-ranging interests were largely in geophysics, meteorology and geography. He studied the Pacific coastal currents, and was the first to propose a Panama canal. He introduced isobars and isotherms on weather maps, made a general study of global temperature and pressure and eventually organized a world-wide scheme for collecting magnetic and weather observations. He studied American volcanoes and showed that they followed geological faults, and deduced that volcanic action had been important in geological history and that many rocks are of igneous origin. He set a world record by climbing the Chimorazo volcano (5876 m) and was the first to link mountain sickness with lack of oxygen, to study the fall of mean temperature with rising altitude and to relate geographical conditions to its animal life and vegetation. In 1804 he discovered that the Earth’s magnetic field decreases from the poles to the equator. His writing has been said ‘to combine the large and vague ideas, typical of the 18th-c thought, with the exact and positive science of the 19th’.

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