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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Discussion: The Invention of Nature

As I mentioned here, last week I led a book discussion for the Chicago Botanic Garden on The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. If you are unfamiliar with this book, please click here and read the summary I posted as well as supplementary materials including readalikes and the questions I created.

Now let’s get right into the discussion:

  • The evening began in the rare books room of the library where we were all able to look at Humboldt's original books, maps, etchings, and illustrations. That was amazing and magical. To see the actual items we read about in the book was such a bonus. It got everyone excited to talk about the book.
  • Before we began I also mingled amongst the attendees to see what brought them to this program [a first of its kind for the Botanic Garden]. Many were shocked that I was not “a plant person.” They all were. I think they were a little wary of whether or not I could lead their discussion, but when it was over many people said they loved how I led and were surprised how well I did not being a “plant person.” I reminded them, “I am a book club person,” so together we all made a great team.
  • I also want to note that due to the fact that the Botanic Garden often has educational programs and lectures, there were a few people who came to learn more about Humboldt but didn’t read the book. Another person was there because he was an international Humboldt expert and really wanted a stage to share all of his knowledge. I did have to go into full control the discussion mode though to keep him in check. Afterward both staff and participants thank me for being firm with him and keeping him from dominating the discussion without angering him. 
  • We did have 15 attendees who read the book though. [We had around 25 total] That did mean that there were a handful of people who didn’t talk at all, but I let that go because they were really there to listen.
  • I knew this might happen, so as you can see in my questions, I did have a few that could be answered whether or not you read this book. That helped a lot.
  • I started off with a question that played off of the perception people had of me not being a “plant person” by admitting that I had never heard of Humboldt before this. What about all of you?
    • Right away people were agreeing. I have studied science and botany my whole life and I didn’t know about him.
    • I hadn’t heard of him and I was reading this book at a daffodil festival where people kept coming up to me wanting to talk about how much they loved Humboldt. It was a great conversation starter.
    • I found out there were a lot of Humboldt fans all over the place when I mentioned I was reading this book.
    • I had read another book that featured him and wanted to know more. When I saw this book discussion advertised I realized I had this book on my shelf and had been meaning to read it. 
  • Question: Humboldt was a genius “polymath,” one of the last scientists who did not specialize. Why did science turn toward specialization after him? What are the positives and negatives of this change?
    • We have so much access to so much knowledge now. No one can know it all anymore.
    • Humboldt could hold all the science we knew in his head. No one can do that now. There is too much knowledge. 
    • But we need more Humboldt’s now. People who take a broader view. Sometimes things are too specific.
    • The nature of how we integrate knowledge and learn things has changed so much since his time. He had to go experience something to know it.
    • You no longer have to “traipse over mountains” to see the top. You can view things on the Internet.
    • But touching things, experiencing them is still very important.
    • He not only knew a lot, but he could also explain complex topics to regular people. That is an amazing skill.
  • People listed some of their “A-Ha” moments from the book:
    • Learning that climate change as a result of human interference was discovered as a scientific fact by Humboldt in the 1700s! Why are people still fighting it.
    • All the people he influenced. People who we can’t imagine modern life without. People who certainly weren’t forgotten like Darwin, Thoreau, Muir.
    • Darwin said that Humboldt gave me eyes to see.
    • Humboldt said Goethe was that person for him. Goethe taught Humboldt to be poetic.
    • My “A-Ha” moment was that so much of science during his time was at the mercy of world politics. I learned so much about the complexity of European politics and wars during this time.
      • I knew these wars and conflicts were all going on, but seeing them in relation to scientific discovery and how they could help or hinder science was fascinating in and of itself.
  • Let’s talk more about how Wulf wrote this book because it is not a typical biography:
    • This book is written in a way to inspire us to be more like Humboldt’ to learn like him- using all of the sciences and all of our senses at once.
    • She wrote this book in a holistic way; it was a reflection on who he was as a man.
    • For me, it was slow at the start. Too much story and not enough science. I got into it when the science got more serious.
    • This comment led to others saying the opposite. [Becky included]. That difference was fun to explore for a few minutes.
    • The paragraphs were LONG. Once you got used to the rhythm of her writing style then it was fine.
    • The interconnectedness of his discoveries meant that the book ebbed and flowed too. You cannot create a straight narrative of his life.
    • The book leaves an impression of who he was, what he did, and the world he helped to create because of how she writes.
    • You get into Humboldt brain. She put you in his mind.
    • I enjoyed how the last few chapters were like mini-biographies of other scientists that he directly influenced. Not only were those interesting on their own, but they put Humboldt’s place in the history of science into perspective immediately.
    • It was like little bonus books.
    • I felt like this book was a little too in sync with today’s world. Did Wulf do that? Or is that Humboldt? Probably Wulf’s 21st Century life view influenced the version of Humboldt we got.
      • One person in the group who had read another book on Humboldt said that he got a slightly different picture of the man from that book.
  • Someone wanted to talk about the adventure in this book.
    • How did they not die!?! Many times they could have died. They climbed huge mountains with no equipment and tattered shoes. They drove into anthrax ravaged towns-- knowingly!
    • The adventure was a surprise. I loved it!
    • One person would have preferred more science in place of the adventure. 
    • Just the “economy of the endeavor” was adventurous. He wanted to know everything about everything. That spirit was exciting and invigorating.
  • Where/What would Humboldt most want to explore today?:
    • DNA
    • Antarctica
    • Bottom of the ocean
    • Space
      • But how could he leave earth to explore space without knowing everything about everything on Earth. I don’t think he would/could leave Earth behind.
    • I think he would be working on computers. Exploring all they could do.
    • Or improving the Internet. 
    • Today I think he would be a blogger. He could write all he wanted and use computer illustrating software.
    • He could hold court one the Internet. Have his lectures there. Talk and expound 24/7.
    • What about a radio or TV talk show?
    • He was very visual. I could see him making films
    • Giving Ted Talks.
    • Humboldt would be everywhere, on every medium today. Why wouldn’t he? He was during his time. There were just fewer options.
  • Let’s talk about Humboldt the guy because he was definitely different.
    • He probably had ADHD
    • And a bit of autism because he had trouble showing emotion and interacting with people. Even those he loved dearly.
    • Lots of great people throughout history were eccentrics.
    • I would have loved to listen to his lectures but hang out with him as a friend...probably not.
    • I would have loved to hang out with him, but I would have to be prepared to be with him.  You would learn a lot, but you wouldn’t necessarily become friends.
  • Who is carrying Humboldt’s legacy today? Sharing science with the masses:
    • Science Friday--Ira Flatow
    • Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • Michael Pollan
    • NOVA
    • National Geographic
    • Emily Graslie- Brain Scoop
    • Myth Busters
    • E. O. Wilson
  • Last minute thoughts or comments:
    • Because this biography was so three dimensional, now I want to know more!
      • A good author gets you interested enough to lean more about what you just read.
    • The scene with the horses being thrown into the water with the electric eels was very disturbing. I am still not over it.
    • This book made me realize that no matter how much we think we know, we are really just on the edge of knowledge. We need to keep challenging ourselves.
Readalikes: I created this document for the Botanic Garden full of readalikes.

My next book discussion is one where I get to be a participant only! Well, I do still have to take notes. But still, I get to be a book clubber. Yay! It’s the next ARRT Book Club Study on May 3rd. Details are here.

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