Alexander “Big Al” von Humboldt was a Prussian polymath, known for his contributions to geography (specifically botanical geography), naturalism, philosophy, and science in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Humboldt did so much for the sciences, in fact, that there’s an entire school of thought bearing his name.
A significant concept in Humboldtian science is equilibrium. Said the man himself, “The general equilibrium which reigns amongst disturbances and apparent turmoil, is the result of infinite number of mechanical forces and chemical attractions balancing each other out.”
A Prussian Yin Yang, If You Will
Humboldt’s equilibrium, then, is derived from an infinite number of forces acting simultaneously, in a variety of ways, all around the world. The general order of nature is, in Humboldt’s view, the result of infinity and complexity; however, Big Al also believed that one could gain a greater understanding of the order of nature by measuring more natural forces around the world.
On a voyage to South America in 1799, Humboldt made many significant discoveries that illustrated his theory of equilibrium. In his Physical Profile of the Andes, a graphic record he created during his journey, Humboldt sought to capture every physical force encountered in the mountain range in a single table, from electricity to living organisms.
The Physical Profile included a detailed map of biodistribution, showing the specific locations of plants and animals at the various elevation levels of the Andes Mountains.
Humboldtian Science Branches Out
As he continued his work in botany, Humboldt’s studies gradually moved further and further away from traditional science. He discovered further examples to support his theories of equilibrium and the interconnectedness of all natural elements. Building off the Physical Profile of the Andes, Humboldt focused intensely on the underlying connections and relationships between different types of plants.
“As in all other phenomena of the physical universe, so in the distribution of organic beings,” Humboldt wrote. “Amidst the apparent disorder which seems to result from the influence of a multitude of local causes, the unchanging law of nature become [sic] evident as soon as one surveys an extensive territory, or uses a mass of facts in which the partial disturbances compensate one another.”
Humboldt applied his theory of equilibrium to the overall connectedness of the creation of our planet. In his view, the history of the earth was a continuous global distribution of heat, vegetation, rock formations, etc. To show these connections visually, Humboldt developed isothermal lines that help to balance general forces while preserving local peculiarities. As he himself wrote, the whole equilibrium and order of nature can be seen only “gradually and progressively from laborious observing, averaging, and mapping over increasingly extended areas.”