Humboldtian Science - Humboldt’s Equilibrium

Humboldt’s Equilibrium

One concept that is central to Humboldtian science is that of a general equilibrium of forces. Humboldt, himself, explains, “The general equilibrium which reigns amongst disturbances and apparent turmoil, is the result of infinite number of mechanical forces and chemical attractions balancing each other out.” Equilibrium is derived from an infinite number of forces acting simultaneously and varying globally. In other words, the lawfulness of nature, according to Humboldt, is a result of infinity and complexity. Humboldtian science promotes the idea that the more forces that are accurately measured over more of the earth’s surface results in a greater understanding of the order of nature.

The voyage to the Americas produced many discoveries and developments that help to illustrate Humboldt’s ideas about this equilibrium of forces. Humboldt produced the Tableau physique des Andes (“Physical Profile of the Andes), which aimed at capturing his voyage to the America’s in a single graphic table. Humboldt meant to capture all of the physical forces, from organisms to electricity, in this single table. Among many other complex empirical recordings of elevation-specific data, the table included a detailed biodistribution. This biodistribution mapped the specific distributions of flora and fauna at every elevation level on the mountain.

Humboldt’s study of plants provides an example of the movement of Humboldtian science away from traditional science. Humboldt’s botany also further illustrates the concept of equilibrium and the Humboldtian ideas of the interrelationship of nature’s elements. Although he was concerned with physical features of plants, he was largely focused on the investigation of underlying connections and relations among plant organisms. Humboldt worked for years on developing an understanding of plant distributions and geography. The link between the balancing equilibrium of natural forces and organism distribution is evident when Humboldt states:

As in all other phenomena of the physical universe, so in the distribution of organic beings: amidst the apparent disorder which seems to result from the influence of a multitude of local causes, the unchanging law of nature become evident as soon as one surveys an extensive territory, or uses a mass of facts in which the partial disturbances compensate one another.

The study of vegetation and plant geography arose out of new concerns that emerged with Humboldtian science. These new areas of concern in science included integrative processes, invisible connections, historical development, and natural wholes.

Humboldtian science applied the idea of general equilibrium of forces to the continuities in the history of the generation of the planet. Humboldt saw the history of the earth as a continuous global distribution of such things as heat, vegetation, and rock formations. In order to graphically represent this continuity Humboldt developed isothermal lines, which denoted isotherms. These isothermal lines functioned in the general balancing of forces in that isothermal lines preserved local peculiarities within a general regularity. According to Humboldtian science, nature’s order and equilibria emerged “gradually and progressively from laborious observing, averaging, and mapping over increasingly extended areas.”

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Famous quotes containing the word equilibrium:

    They who feel cannot keep their minds in the equilibrium of a pair of scales: fear and hope have no equiponderant weights.
    Horace Walpole (1717–1797)