New Year reception

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation commemorates the great scientist

“Inquisitive, adventurous, open-minded, forthright”: On January 17th around 400 guests from science, politics and business marked the 250th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth celebrated the values of a staunch citizen of the world.

The mobile photo booth is in great demand. Scientists are huddled together around an Alexander von Humboldt cardboard cut-out, getting a group photo taken. Props are also available – a hat, a crown, a birthday cake. The backdrop is topped off by a banner proclaiming “Excellence connects”. The New Year reception of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is a mix of grandeur and joviality. Distinguished researchers engage in learned conversations leavened with a dash of humour.

Festive setting with the Berlin Brass Quintet

The reception at Deutsche Telekom headquarters in the German capital was to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the man who gave the foundation its name. The Berlin Brass Quintet played works that are not often found on a concert programme. The first item was the fanfare from the ballet La Péri by French composer Paul Dukas. The five musicians – former students of the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music – played music from countries that have a connection to the Humboldt sestercentennial. The Third Quintet by Russian composer Victor Ewald is an avant-garde work of the brass repertoire. A Bossa Nova from South America and Irving Berlin’s jazz favourite Puttin’ on the Ritz rounded off the musical programme which was applauded enthusiastically by the 400 guests drawn from the worlds of science, politics and business as well as Humboldt prize winners and grant recipients.


Humboldt as an ongoing inspiration

In his speech, Foundation President Hans-Christian Pape spoke in glowing terms of Humboldt as a restless adventurer who took risks that could so often have cost him his life. Pape, a prominent neurophysiologist who has just completed his first year in office, reminded his listeners of the time when Humboldt almost suffocated in a mineshaft, of the avalanche in South America that nearly swept him away, and of the hungry crocodiles that swam alongside his boat on the Orinoco. At the fairly advanced age of 60, Humboldt had himself lowered in a diving bell to the bottom of the Thames. The Foundation President did not miss the opportunity to draw a parallel with Brexit today.

Humboldt was a networker and a pioneer in so many areas, but especially in raising environmental awareness. Pape described how the public image of Humboldt varies from country to country: “Because of the time he spent in the United States, many in the West saw him as a transatlantic figure personifying the links between the old and the new worlds. In East Germany, on the other hand, he was portrayed as a proto-socialist because of his championing of the miners’ cause.” Portrayals of Humboldt as Indiana Jones and Che Guevara on the video wall provoked merry laughter.


In the second part of his speech, Hans-Christian Pape speculated on the causes that Humboldt would probably have taken to heart nowadays. Maybe he would engage in a Twitter spat with Donald Trump? Certainly, scientific communication would be important to this particular researcher, with his urge to share information. But where would he secure the funding for his adventurous projects today? “He might have some success applying to the foundation that bears his name, because we sponsor excellent people rather than projects. In any case, I hope that we would recognise the potential of the young Humboldt if he applied to us as a postdoc.”

Anniversary campaign for everyone to join in

Pape closed his speech with a video clip about the anniversary campaign Humboldt heute (Humboldt today), emphasising the extent to which Humboldt continues to be a role model for him in so many respects: “Inquisitive, adventurous, open-minded, forthright. Everyone, especially scientists, should aspire to live their lives according to the example set by Humboldt.”

After the speech, the guests tucked into an international buffet which comprised delicacies from the countries visited by Humboldt on his travels. The choice of dishes ranged from a typical Berlin sauerbraten to French coq au vin and from South American vegetable quinoa to Russian pelmeni. Every bit as multinational as the buffet were the guests and the languages being spoken. The meticulously arranged and elegant setting fostered a relaxed, informal atmosphere.

The reception, which takes place every New Year, is a great opportunity for young scholarship recipients and award winners to make new contacts. The next generation of scientists, who may well have been living in Germany for only a short time, get to meet members of the extensive Humboldt network who have already made their mark in research circles. The Humboldtians engaged in lively conversation and swapped relevant experiences. It can be confidently assumed that this New Year’s reception once again laid the groundwork for collaborative ventures and exciting new projects.

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Anniversary year 2019

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Globetrotter and scientist Alexander von Humboldt was born 250 years ago. To mark the anniversary, numerous ceremonies, conferences, lectures, projects and other activities will be taking place throughout 2019. Most of these will be held in Germany, but the countries of South America visited by Humboldt also have events planned, most notably Peru.