Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/163

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151
ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.


facility he had become a Spaniard in New Spain, so, without denying his German, he made the Parisian academicians forget that he was not a Frenchman. In this, that gift of ready wit with which, while a student at Frankfort, he had troubled the more serious William, and which he used as a powerful weapon in his subsequent court-life, was of much advantage to him. Associated with Gay-Lussac and Provençal in labors which are still instructive, he was received into that small circle of learned men that gathered around the venerable Berthollet at Arcueil. All of these and numerous other friendships of Humboldt's are thrown into the shade by the life-long connection he formed with Arago, to which the contrast of their natures lent a peculiar charm.

Humboldt was at first sight of insignificant, flattering, and pliant appearance, Arago of imposing bearing, a type of fiery Southern manhood; Humboldt of encyclopedic mind and knowledge, Arago an astronomer and mathematico-physicist of so sharply limited a scope and so strict a school that, while he analyzed according to three axes the modifying effects which neighboring masses of metals exercise upon magnetic deflections, he left it to Faraday, who could not square a binomial, to find out their causes. Like Humboldt, Arago was a master of comprehensive scientific description; but, while Humboldt inclined to melting pathos, the dazzling polish of Arago's keen language becomes a tiresome mannerism. Sympathy in political views was a bond between them. Arago was a republican, Humboldt called himself a democrat of 1789. Probably this was the reason of the contemptuous condescension with which Napoleon I, among whose faults was not want of respect for science, used to meet him.

In connection with Arago, Humboldt, as he was fond of telling, ruled for twenty years what was then the first scientific body in the world. If not of his fame, this period was the climax of his life. As in the primitive forest he had watched through nights undisturbed by the murmur of the cataracts, the humming of the mosquitoes, the near roaring of the jaguars, and the fearful cry of the beasts in the tree-tops above him, so now were the confusing pressure of the world's metropolis, the thousand personal demands daily thrust upon him, the brilliant society of the salon, the intrigues of academical lobbies, to him only a pleasant, stimulating life-element. He found gratification in this mental tumult, which, busy with the air and matter of life, overlooked him while he built up the gigantic coral structure of the many-membered story of his travels. More and more consumed with an inextinguishable enthusiasm for science; in unlimited devotion to knowledge, neglecting domestic fortune; drawing into the line of his activity hosts of learned men and artists, and skillfully utilizing their talents for his own objects; not, indeed, teaching ex cathedra, but inspiring youth by his example and continually encouraging them — he was at that time in Paris, as afterward in Berlin, a central figure, from