Alexander von Humboldt biography wins Royal Society science book prize

Andrea Wulf wins £25,000 award for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the 19th-century explorer who has more things named after him than any other human

A biography of the 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who has “faded from collective memory” despite being dubbed “the Shakespeare of the sciences” by his peers, has won the £25,000 prize for the best science book of the year.

Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, which lays out the life of the Prussian explorer and naturalist Humboldt, was named winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize on Monday evening by chair of judges Bill Bryson. Humboldt, who lived from 1769 to 1859, inspired scientists and writers including Jules Verne and Charles Darwin in his day. He has more things named after him than anyone who has ever lived, including an ocean current, a six-foot squid and a breed of penguin.

Andrea Wulf .
Andrea Wulf . Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Bu according to the Royal Society, of which he was a foreign member, he has “faded from collective memory” in the English-speaking world today.

Bryson, a previous winner of the award, said that Wulf’s biography, which also won the Costa biography prize, was “a thrilling adventure story as much as a science book about a polymath who had an extraordinary impact on our contemporary understanding of nature”.

Other contenders for this year’s prize included Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, Thomas Levenson’s The Hunt for Vulcan, and Tim Birkhead’s look at the bird egg, The Most Perfect Thing.

“The decisive factor for the winning book was that it excited and gripped us as judges the most,” said Bryson. “It is a book you will find yourself talking endlessly about with friends in the pub.”

“Humboldt may not be well known today but he remains very much of our time: his work tackled many of today’s big issues like climate change and biodiversity loss and the interconnectedness of nature,” said Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s professor for public engagement in science. “Moreover, he was a polymath who was curious about everything and was a superb communicator. His interdisciplinary approach puts paid to the ridiculous notion that science and the arts are separate entities. We should be taking our cues from Humboldt – be curious and be informed by science on the big issues.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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