Who’s The Guy With The Big Head On 77th Street?

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There he sits, unnoticed, at the edge of Central Park: a flop of hair across his forehead, chin up, eyes blazing. He doesn’t have a body, just a torso resting on a pedestal that says, in simple, bold block letters: HUMBOLDT. No first name, like he’s that famous.

Humboldt? Humboldt who? About 150 years ago, that was like asking Madonna who? Or Beyonce who? Or Napoleon who? Everybody knew. He was spectacularly famous.

Alexander Von Humboldt, born in Prussia, was an explorer who climbed the Alps and the Andes, sailed up the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, criss-crossed Siberia, but more than his feats of daring, more than his studies of gasses, magnetism, stratigraphy, his greatest gift was to describe what he’d seen. His books, his drawings, his vivid tales of adventure were so popular, that schoolkids knew him, and his lectures were packed.

His five-volume masterpiece, called Cosmos, argued that deserts, mountains, and forests, as different as they look, operate by the same rules, and that the Earth was a unity, a single ecology. His fans included Jefferson, Bolivar, Goethe, Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe. The composer Berlioz called his writing “dazzling.”

And then, having reached the peak, a world-wide celebrity, you can almost hear a long, deep ‘pffffffffftttt’ as his fame began to leak away, until many, many decades later, the deflation complete, we find him on a street corner, a quiet hunk of bronze next to a weekend hot dog stand.

shared via: phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/24/whos-the-guy-with-the-big-head-on-77th-street/
article: Robert Krulwich
image: Patti McConville, Alamy

 

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