Knowledge as gain
The Museum für Naturkunde Berlin has some 1100 exhibits related to Alexander von Humboldt. In the exhibition titled "Ein langdauernder Werth" ("A lasting value"), some of them tell remarkable stories about the history of geology.
Even someone like Alexander von Humboldt was not immune to mistakes. And he would have been the first to admit it. After all, over the course of his research career he had to abandon a number of theories that were considered irrefutable in the academic circles of his time, and in which he himself (at least in his scientific youth) had believed.
Concerning the formation of volcanoes, for instance. At the time, Abraham Gottlob Werner, Humboldt's teacher at the Freiberg Mining Academy, had still been propagating Neptunism, according to which most rocks were sediments, deposits from the ocean.
A view that Humboldt went on to revise in Kosmos. As he did the theory according to which meteorites were formed in the earth's atmosphere (which is also where the term meteorology comes from). As we know, this was superseded by the discovery that the astronomical objects are extraterrestrial material.
This led Humboldt to the conclusion that scientific theories are never set in stone. And so the only thing to which he ascribed a "lasting value" was the research material, all the objects he collected on his travels. An exhibition on Humboldt is currently running with this very title – "Ein langdauernder Werth" ("A lasting value") – in the Mineral Hall of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, showcasing some of his most remarkable rock finds. Curators Ferdinand Damaschun and Ralf Thomas Schmitt say that the museum has approximately "1100 exhibits that we can associate with Humboldt – just lining them up side by side would be fairly boring."
Damaschun and Schmitt have drawn particular attention to 60 special objects in the collection's display cabinets with blue information panels. Minerals from Humboldt's student years, from his time as a mining inspector, from South America and Russia – or ones that were given to him. Many of these were donated by the explorer to the Royal Mineral Cabinet in Berlin – a precursor to the present-day museum collections. Humboldt's findings caused quite a stir there. The fire opal from Zimapán in Mexico, for instance, which he had brought back from his South American travels. Even though the analysis ascertained that the stone consisted "merely" of silica, water and a little ferric oxide.
Value – for Humboldt, this consisted not in the material itself, but in the advancement of knowledge. His Russian journey, where the focus was on finding gold and platinum deposits in the country, cannot be considered a Klondike-style gold rush, either. The objective was rather a geographical systematisation of precious metals. Even the first Russian diamonds, whose discovery – contrary to all expectation – Humboldt predicted, thanks to his geological knowledge, "were never commercialised", Schmitt says.
The curators point out that for the history of mineralogy, this expedition to the Urals in particular proved invaluable, even more so than the South American journey. Not least because Humboldt was accompanied in Russia by Gustav Rose, one of the most renowned mineralogists of his day, who crucially also conducted analyses of the collected objects. Rose thus deserves much credit for the expedition's success. He is responsible, for example, for a special "type sample" in the exhibition – the term for a sample used to describe a type of mineral for the very first time. This one comes from the Urals and is called cancrinite – "after the then Russian minister Cancrin, who had financed Humboldt's journey," Damaschun explains.
As we know, the scientist was more interested in the bigger picture than in fastidious lab work. This is reflected at the Museum für Naturkunde in a mineral containing mercury called cinnabar, or cinnabarite. In Humboldt's day, mercury was highly sought after for American silver production, and 75 percent of it came from European imports. Concerned as he was with sustainability, the scientist wanted to increase the continent's own supply of mercury. He undertook research to this end in Mexico and Peru.
"In geology, as elsewhere," the curators say, "Humboldt always sought to highlight the global processes and dynamics."
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