This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt’s Cosmos – Our World

4 min read
Ideas can be useful only if they spring to life in many minds.

This precept of Alexander von Humboldt’s may well have sustained him when he arrived in Berlin one gray November day in 1827. It had been more than twenty years ago that he had left the Prussian capital for Paris to get his writings ready for publication. Now he was finally returning with luggage filled with journals and records from his travels in the Americas, all ready to go to the printers. But although the memories and impressions of his research expeditions and discoveries were still fresh in his mind, he was also preoccupied by a highly ambitious project: He was committed to supporting his brother Wilhelm’s efforts to make the Prussian capital bloom into a center for science and research, and had very specific ideas about how this could be accomplished. The key, he believed, was to make the citizens of Berlin active participants in the ongoing process of scientific discovery. But he also knew that before he could arouse the public’s fascination in the new cosmos of discovery, he would first have to build an interested audience.

And so the public lecture became a special space of resonance for Alexander von Humboldt – a format that he deliberately used to impart his findings to the public in a popularized form they could readily understand. Having organized a twin series of parallel lectures on the “physical description of the world,” he was able to attract a broad audience to his podium during the winter semester of 1827/28: Between November 3rd, 1827, and April 26th, 1828, he held a total of 61 lectures before 400 students and those teaching them in one of the University of Berlin’s auditoria. Concomitantly, he gave no less than 16 presentations to 1,000 listeners at a time in the great hall of the neighboring Singakademie – an unprecedented audience for that time. Even Friedrich Wilhelm III and his son, the later King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, accepted Humboldt’s invitation to attend; indeed, it seemed as though half of Berlin had come to hear him, from lowly laborers and craftsmen to city councilors and members of court society.

These talks known as the “Cosmos lectures” have since gone down as milestones of scientific and cultural history. His contemporaries confirmed that Alexander von Humboldt was able to relate his eye-witness accounts in a conversational yet gripping manner, drawing surprising intellectual connections while making scientific concepts comprehensible with the flair of a poet. Thus, he managed to seamlessly integrate the findings, experiences, and adventures of his five-year American voyage into the broader, holistic context of the latest discoveries in the natural sciences. In his capacity as a naturalist, he presented falling stars and fossilized shells as tangible witnesses to the primordial origins of the world. He spoke about black holes, distant comets, and the multifaceted beauty of nature, such as one finds not just in the Tropics but even in the wide expanses of the Antarctic Ocean. His fascinating research reports ran the gamut from “the painting of nature” (Naturgemälde) depicting general geographic features to discussions of “the most remote nebulae and circulating binary stars of outer space,” “the telluric manifestations of the geography of organisms,” or the “the plants, animals, and races of man.” Yet they all served to communicate the one discovery which Alexander von Humboldt regarded to be his most important and incisive: namely, the inner linkage between the general and the particular, or “nature as an organic unity moved and animated by inner forces,” as he put it. In other words, the idea that every form of life must be seen as part of a complex whole.

Alexander von Humboldt was convinced that this fundamental insight could be understood by anyone regardless of their educational level. He was therefore determined not to charge admission for his lectures and to make his knowledge freely accessible to all – particularly including women, who were precluded from attending Prussian universities and would remain so until the end of the 19th century. He even paid the rent for the lecture hall out of his own pocket. Happily, Alexander von Humboldt’s vision was to bear real fruit: His universal description of the world became a sensation and went on to form the core of his last great publication “Cosmos” (1845-62), an encyclopedic, five-volume survey that was to remain unfinished. With over 87,000 copies printed, this was quickly recognized as a seminal work. As Humboldt had intended, the spirit of exploration and inquiry he had worked so hard to foster “sprang to life in many minds.” It was an intellectual spark that would soon spread like a blaze – and that continues to shape Berlin as a center of science and research to this day.

Photo by Neil MacGregor
Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor, a British art historian, was Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015 and Director of the Founding Directorate of the Humboldt Forum until 2018.