The Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt has occupied a special place in my heart since I read Andrea Wulf‘s The Invention of Nature last year. Before then the name Humboldt had a vaguely familiar sound, probably because of the many places and species named after him, but I admit that I knew almost nothing about the fascinating man behind it.
Sure enough, he was another privileged white man, but he was a pretty good one at that. More than 200 years ago he openly spoke against slavery, supported the independence of the American colonies and he had little patience for kings and emperors. He preferred to travel the world, cataloguing species, rather than enjoying the comforts of the court and even when on the verge of bankruptcy he always helped young scientists with the little money he had. His work inspired some of my personal heroes, like Darwin and Haeckel, but also writers like Goethe and Thoreau. And yet, he has been almost completely forgotten outside the scientific community. This is probably for many complex reasons, but as Wulf explains mostly because:
He was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialised fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little room for a man whose knowledge had bridged a vast range of subjects. As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise, dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force.
In brief, he didn’t make any single revolutionary discovery but he profoundly changed the way we think about nature . While he was alive, Humboldt was an international celebrity and – in my opinion – an excellent example of the role scientists should have in society. When he died (on this day in 1859) the whole world mourned his loss. This is why I have decided to take some time off my other projects and remember him, in my own way.
I want to encourage others to discover Humboldt and I hope that, maybe, his story could inspire some scientists to ‘crawl’ out of their niches and follow his vision. We badly need more like him.
I have a little announcement to make, so please allow me an unusually long post.
When I decided to become a freelance cartoonist in 2013, after finishing my PhD, I never seriously considered returning to academia. I simply didn’t think there would be an institution that would accommodate – even less support – my strange mix of interests. And probably there wasn’t, until Columbia University created the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience (PSSN for short) with the ambitious goal of creating:
a new paradigm for interdisciplinary university-sponsored research to advance understanding of mind, brain, and behavior, and the social foundations and consequences of new neuroscientific findings.
I only discovered the program in September 2015, when I first travelled to New York, and I just couldn’t believe my luck. The PSSN postdoc seemed like the position of my dreams and the next round of submission was only a few months away. I immediately started working on a proposal titled ‘Visual Narratives for Science Communication‘ and thinking of ways to bridge the gap between the apparently distant worlds of science and comics.
The good news is that my proposal was accepted! This means that I will have the chance to fully develop this interdisciplinary project and explore how we can use visual narratives to communicate science. I think the proliferation of science-inspired cartoons, animations and webcomics already proves their great potential, but as a scientist I want to go deeper and try to understand the cognitive mechanisms behind visual narrative communication.
Because I think scientists need new communication tools and I believe comics can help us. My hope is that soon they will not be considered just some ‘funny’ way to talk about science but an essential tool for science education. I hope one day to see a professional community of science cartoonists just like the community of science journalists we have today.
Finally – and this is one of the main reasons for me to write this post – I want to make clear that I can’t do this alone. We need interdisciplinary answers for interdisciplinary problems. Luckily, over the past years, I have already met many brilliant people, from many different fields, willing to support me. But I’m sure there are more out there who can contribute to this new emerging field. So, if you are interested in this project, whether you are a scientist, a journalist, a cartoonist, a designer, or any combination of these and much more… please DO get in touch. I’d love to hear from you, what you think and how we can collaborate.
I have big plans and more news will follow soon but in the meanwhile thank you all for supporting my work. I hope you will join me on this new adventure.