Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/157

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THE

POPULAR SCIENCE

MONTHLY.



DECEMBER, 1883.



ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.[1]
By ÉMIL DU BOIS-REYMOND,
RECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF BERLIN.

PROPERLY to appreciate Alexander von Humboldt's life-work, one must form a conception of the intellectual atmosphere from which he issued. The opinion may not unfrequently be found among laymen that there was no real German naturalist before Humboldt. They are accustomed, as if to a Hercules, to ascribe all deeds to him. It is not necessary to say that this is all a mistake; but even professional naturalists frequently remember too little of our older history. I do not speak of the almost ancient figures of Copernicus, Kepler, and Otto von Guericke; nor of Leibnitz, who had as clear a comprehension of the fundamental ideas of nature as we; but the eighteenth century displays names worthy of the highest degree of respect, almost as brilliant as these.

The Bernoullis developed analytic mechanics, Euler recognized the feasibility of achromatic glasses, Tobias Mayer reformed the theory of the moon, Lambert laid the foundation of photometry, Kant conceived the nebular hypothesis, and William Herschel, whom we count among our own, enlarged our knowledge of the starry heavens almost as if the telescope had just been discovered. Had the Dutch physicists left him time, the Canon of Camin would have certainly possessed a perfect

  1. From a memorial address delivered in the hall of the university, August 3, 1883. The speaker began his address by referring to the custom of annually celebrating the foundation of the university and the memory of its founder, King Frederick William III of Prussia; he then related the history of the efforts to raise funds to erect the statues of the brothers William and Alexander von Humboldt, just placed in the grounds of the university. Following this account with a brief comparative estimate of the talents of the two brothers, he continued, speaking more especially of Alexander.