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A PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION OF THE UNIVERSE
ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT
TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN
BY E. C. OTTE
Naturae vero rerum vis atque majestas in omnibus momentis fides caret, si quis modo partes ejus ac non totam complectatur animo. -- Plin., Hist. Nat., lib. vii, c. 1.
WITH AN INTRODUCTION
BY NICOLAAS A. RUPKE
THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS
Baltimore and London
[page vi and Introduction to the 1997 edition not copied]
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I CAN not more appropriately introduce the Cosmos than by presenting a brief sketch of the life of its illustrious author.* While the name of Alexander von Humboldt is familiar to every one, few, perhaps, are aware of the peculiar circumstances of his scientific career and of the extent of his labors in almost every department of physical knowledge. He was born on the 14th of September, 1769, and is, therefore, now in his 80th year. After going through the ordinary course of education at Gottingen, and having made a rapid tour through Holland, England, and France, he became a pupil of Werner at the mining school of Freyburg, and in his 21st year published an "Essay on the Basalts of the Rhine." Though he soon became officially connected with the mining corps, he was enabled to continue his excursions in foreign countries, for, during the six or seven years succeeding the publication of his first essay, he seems to have visited Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France. His attention to mining did not, however, prevent him from devoting his attention to other scientific pursuits, among which botany and the then recent discovery of galvanism may be especially noticed. Botany, indeed, we know from his own authority, occupied him almost exclusively for some years; but even at this time he was practicing the use of those astronomical and physical instruments which he afterward turned to so singularly excellent an account.
[footnote] *For the following remarks I am mainly indebted to the articles on the Cosmos in the two leading Quarterly Reviews.
The political disturbances of the civilized world at the close
of the last century prevented our author from carrying out various plans of foreign travel which he had contemplated, and detained him an unwilling prisoner in Europe. In the year 1799 he went to Spain, with the hope of entering Africa from Cadiz, but the unexpected patronage which he received at the court of Madrid led to a great alteration in his plans, and decided him to proceed directly to the Spanish possessions in America, "and there gratify the longings for foreign adventure, and the scenery of the tropics, which had haunted him from boyhood, but had all along been turned in the diametrically opposite direction of Asia." After encountering various risks of capture, he succeeded in reaching America, and from 1799 to 1804 prosecuted there extensive researches in the physical geography of the New World, which has indelibly stamped his name in the undying records of science.
Excepting an excursion to Naples with Gay-Lussac and Von Buch in 1805 (the year after his return from America), the succeeding twenty years of his life were spent in Paris, and were almost exclusively employed in editing the results of his American journey. In order to bring these results before the world in a manner worthy of their importance, he commenced a series of gigantic publications in almost every branch of science on which he had instituted observations. In 1817, after twelve years of incessant toil, four fifths were completed, and an ordinary copy of the part then in print cost considerably more than one hundred pounds sterling. Since that time the publication has gone on more slowly, and even now after the lapse of nearly half a century, it remains, and probably ever will remain, incomplete.
In the year 1828, when the greatest portion of his literary labor had been accomplished, he undertook a scientific journey to Siberia, under the special protection of the Russian government. In this journey -- a journey for which he had prepared himself by a course of study unparalleled in the history of travel -- he was accompanied by two companions hardly less distinguished than himself, Ehrenberg and Gustav Rose, and
the results obtained during their expedition are recorded by our author in his Fragments Asiatiques, and in his Asie Centrale, and by Rose in his Reise nach dem Oural. If the Asie Centrale had been his only work, constituting, as it does, an epitome of all the knowledge acquired by himself and by former travelers on the physical geography of Northern and Central Asia, that work alone would have sufficed to form a reputation of the highest order.
I proceed to offer a few remarks on the work of which I now present a new translation to the English public, a work intended by its author "to embrace a summary of physical knowledge, as connected with a delineation of the material universe."
The idea of such a physical description of the universe had, it appears, been present to his mind from a very early epoch. It was a work which he felt he must accomplish, and he devoted almost a lifetime to the accumulation of materials for it. For almost half a century it had occupied his thoughts; and at length, in the evening of life, he felt himself rich enough in the accumulation of thought, travel, reading, and experimental research, to reduce into form and reality the undefined vision that has so long floated before him. The work, when completed, will form three volumes. The first volume comprises a sketch of all that is at present known of the physical phenomena of the universe; the second comprehends two distinct parts, the first of which treats of the incitements to the study of nature, afforded in descriptive poetry, landscape painting, and the cultivation of exotic plants; while the second and larger part enters into the consideration of the different epochs in the progress of discovery and of the corresponding stages of advance in human civilization. The third volume, the publication of which, as M. Humboldt himself informs me in a letter addressed to my learned friend and publisher, Mr. H. G. Bohn, "has been somewhat delayed, owing to the present state of public affairs, will comprise the special and scientific development of the great Picture of Nature
Each of the three parts of the Cosmos is therefore, to a certain extent, distinct in its object, and may be considered complete in itself. We can not better terminate this brief notice than in the words of one of the most eminent philosophers of our own country, that, "should the conclusion correspond (as we doubt not) with these beginnings, a work will have been accomplished every way worthy of the author's fame, and a crowning laurel added to that wreath with which Europe will always delight to surround the name of Alexander von Humboldt."
In venturing to appear before the English public as the interpreter of "the great work of our age,"* I have been encouraged by the assistance of many kind literary and scientific friends, and I gladly avail myself of this opportunity of expressing my deep obligations to Mr. Brooke, Dr. Day, Professor Edward Forbes, Mr. Hind, Mr. Glaisher, Dr. Percy, and Mr. Ronalds, for the valuable aid they have afforded me.
[footnote] *The expression applied to the Cosmos by the learned Bunsen, in his late Report on Ethnology, in the Report of the British Association for 1847, p. 265.
It would be scarcely right to conclude these remarks without a reference to the translations that have preceded mine. The translation executed by Mrs. Sabine is singularly accurate and elegant. The other translation is remarkable for the opposite qualities, and may therefore be passed over in silence. The present volumes differ from those of Mrs. Sabine in having all the foreign measures converted into corresponding English terms, in being published at considerably less than one third of the price, and in being a translation of the entire work, for I have not conceived myself justified in omitting passages, sometimes amounting to pages, simply because they might be deemed slightly obnoxious to our national prejudices.
In the late evening of an active life I offer to the German public a work, whose undefined image has floated before my mind for almost half a century. I have frequently looked upon its completion as impracticable, but as often as I have been disposed to relinquish the undertaking, I have again -- although perhaps imprudently -- resumed the task. This work I now present to my contemporaries with a diffidence inspired by a just mistrust of my own powers, while I would willingly forget that writings long expected are usually received with less indulgence.
Although the outward relations of life, and an irresistible impulse toward knowledge of various kinds, have led me to occupy myself for many years -- and apparently exclusively -- with separate branches of science, as, for instance, with descriptive botany, geognosy, chemistry, astronomical determinations of position, and terrestrial magnetism, in order that I might the better prepare myself for the extensive travels in which I was desirous of engaging, the actual object of my studies has nevertheless been of a higher character. The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces. My intercourse with highly-gifted men early led me to discover that, without an earnest striving to attain to a knowledge of special branches of study, all attempts to give a grand and general view of the universe would be nothing more than a vain illusion. These special departments in the great domain of natural
science are, moreover, capable of being reciprocally fructified by means of the appropriative forces by which they are endowed. Descriptive botany, no longer confined to the narrow circle of the determination of genera and species, leads the observer who traverses distant lands and lofty mountains to the study of the geographical distribution of plants of the earth's surface, according to distance from the equator and vertical elevation above the sea. It is further necessary to investigate the laws which regulate the differences of temperature and climate, and the meteorological processes of the atmosphere, before we can hope to explain the involved causes of vegetable distribution; and it is thus that the observer who earnestly pursues the path of knowledge is led from one class of phenomena to another, by means of the mutual dependence and connection existing between them.
I have enjoyed an advantage which few scientific travelers have shared to an equal extent, viz., that of having seen not only littoral districts, such as are alone visited by the majority of those who take part in voyages of circumnavigation, but also those portions of the interior of two vast continents which present the most striking contrasts manifested in the Alpine tropical landscapes of South America, and the dreary wastes of the steppes in Northern Asia. Travels, undertaken in districts such as these, could not fail to encourage the natural tendency of my mind toward a generalization of views, and to encourage me to attempt, in a special work, to treat of the knowledge which we at present possess, regarding the sidereal and terrestrial phenomena of the Cosmos in their empirical relations. The hitherto undefined idea of a physical geography has thus, by an extended and perhaps too boldly imagined a plan, been comprehended under the idea of a physical description of the universe, embracing all created things in the regions of space and in the earth.
The very abundance of the materials which are presented to the mind for arrangement and definition, necessarily impart no inconsiderable difficulties in the choice of the form under
which such a work must be presented, if it would aspire to the honor of being regarded as a literary composition. Descriptions of nature ought not to be deficient in a tone of life-like truthfulness, while the mere enumeration of a series of general results is productive of a no less wearying impression than the elaborate accumulation of the individual data of observation. I scarcely venture to hope that I have succeeded in satisfying these various requirements of composition, or that I have myself avoided the shoals and breakers which I have known how to indicate to others. My faint hope of success rests upon the special indulgence which the German public have bestowed upon a small work bearing the title of 'Ansichten der Natur', which I published soon after my return from Mexico. This work treats, under general points of view, of separate branches of physical geography (such as the forms of vegetation, grassy plains, and deserts). The effect produced by this small volume has doubtlessly been more powerfully manifested in the influence it has exercised on the sensitive minds of the young, whose imaginative faculties are so strongly manifested, than by means of any thing which it could itself impart. In the work on the Cosmos on which I am now engaged, I have endeavored to show, as in that entitled Ansichten der Natur, that a certain degree of scientific completeness in the treatment of individual facts is not wholly incompatible with a picturesque animation of style.
Since public lectures seemed to me to present an easy and efficient means of testing the more or less successful manner of connecting together the detached branches of any one science, I undertook, for many months consecutively, first in the French language, at Paris, and afterward in my own native German, at Berlin (almost simultaneously at two different places of assembly), to deliver a course of lectures on the physical description of the universe, according to my conception of the science. My lectures were given extemporaneously, both in French and German, and without the aid of written notes, nor have I, in any way, made use, in the present work,
of those portions of my discourses which have been preserved by the industry of certain attentive auditors. With the exception of the first forty pages, the whole of the present work was written, for the first time, in the years 1843 and 1844.
A character of unity, freshness, and animation must, I think, be derived from an association with some definite epoch, where the object of the writer is to delineate the present condition of knowledge and opinions. Since the additions constantly made to the latter give rise to fundamental changes in pre-existing views, my lectures and the Cosmos have nothing in common beyond the succession in which the various facts are treated. The first portion of my work contains introductory considerations regarding the diversity in the degrees of enjoyment to be derived from nature, and the knowledge of the laws by which the universe is governed; it also considers the limitation and scientific mode of treating a physical description of the universe, and gives a general picture of nature which contains a view of all the phenomena comprised in the Cosmos.
This general picture of nature, which embraces within its wide scope the remotest nebulous spots, and the revolving double stars in the regions of space, no less than the telluric phenomena included under the department of the geography of organic forms (such as plants, animals, and races of men), comprises all that I deem most specially important with regard to the connection existing between generalities and specialities, while it moreover exemplifies, by the form and style of the composition, the mode of treatment pursued in the selection of the results obtained from experimental knowledge. The two succeeding volumes will contain a consideration of the particular means of incitement toward the study of nature (consisting in animated delineations, landscape painting, and the arrangement and cultivation of exotic vegetable forms), of the history of the contemplation of the universe, or the gradual development of the reciprocal action of natural forces constituting one natural whole; and lastly, of the special
branches of the several departments of science, whose mutual connection is indicated in the beginning of the work. Wherever it has been possible to do so, I have adduced the authorities from whence I derived my facts, with a view of affording testimony both to the accuracy of my statements and to the value of the observations to which reference was made. In those instances where I have quoted from my own writings (the facts contained in which being, from their very nature, scattered through different portions of my works), I have always referred to the original editions, owing to the importance of accuracy with regard to numerical relations, and to my own distrust of the care and correctness of translators. In the few cases where I have extracted short passages from the works of my friends, I have indicated them by marks of quotation; and, in imitation of the practice of the ancients, I have invariably preferred the repetition of the same words to any arbitrary substitution of my own paraphrases. The much-contested question of priority of claim to a first discovery, which it is so dangerous to treat of in a work of this uncontroversial kind, has rarely been touched upon. Where I have occasionally referred to classical antiquity, and to that happy period of transition which has rendered the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries so celebrated, owing to the great geographical discoveries by which the age was characterized, I have been simply led to adopt this mode of treatment, from the desire we experience from time to time, when considering the general views of nature, to escape from the circle of more strictly dogmatical modern opinions, and enter the free and fanciful domain of earlier presentiments.
It has frequently been regarded as a subject of discouraging consideration, that while purely literary products of intellectual activity are rooted in the depths of feeling, and interwoven with the creative force of imagination, all works treating of empirical knowledge, and of the connection of natural phenomena and physical laws, are subject to the most marked modifications of form in the lapse of short periods of time, both
by the improvement in the instruments used, and by the consequent expansion of the field of view opened to rational observation, and that those scientific works which have, to use a common expression, become antiquated by the acquisition of new funds of knowledge, are thus continually being consigned to oblivion as unreadable. However discouraging such a prospect must be, no one who is animated by a genuine love of nature, and by a sense of the dignity attached to its study, can view with regret any thing which promises future additions and a greater degree of perfection to general knowledge. Many important branches of knowledge have been based upon a solid foundation which will not easily be shaken, both as regards the phenomena in the regions of space and on the earth; while there are other portions of science in which general views will undoubtedly take the place of merely special; where new forces will be discovered and new substances will be made known, and where those which are now considered as simple will be decomposed. I would, therefore, venture to hope that an attempt to delineate nature in all its vivid animation and exalted grandeur, and to trace the stable amid the vacillating, ever-recurring alternation of physical metamorphoses, will not be wholly disregarded even at a future age.
Potsdam, Nov., 1844.
This material taken from pages 13-22
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COSMOS: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Vol. 1
by Alexander von Humboldt
Translated by E C Otte
from the 1858 Harper & Brothers edition of Cosmos, volume 1