Transcript

Prime Time Late Edition

Text: At the age of 60, Alexander von Humboldt travels with six carriages across the Urals and the Altai mountains to the Chinese Border / He discovers the geological treasures of the East: diamonds and gold / Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who has also written about the astronomer Messier, reports - -

Text: Alexander von Humboldt in Russia / Hans Magnus Enzensberger about the natural scientist

Alexander Kluge: There is the famous trip to Russia in 1829, when Alexander von Humboldt is already 60 years old.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Yes, a long-standing plan, he actually wanted to get as far as China and India, but the political situation didn't allow for that. The Great Game between England, which had occupied India, and Russia, had already begun; it was contradictory. So he did not reach China, but he did get to the Chinese border. And you have to try and imagine, even today the streets there are difficult … the road system is very primitive. It was basically just mud. It's hard to imagine that they went there with six carriages, I believe.

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Kluge: …And when they get to the Altai Mountains, it does not get better, it is impassable.

Enzensberger: At the age of 60, 60. Of course, he had good maps because he was already famous enough that at the court in St. Petersburg – there was a big reception, the bureaucrats knew how to throw one of those, just like the ones you know from Russian literature, with this bureaucratic world and its hierarchy – and they didn't understand …

Kluge: And they are sitting there as though it were Little Byzantium and they rule an empire where none of them  has been before.

Enzensberger: Yes, they didn’t know it.

Kluge: They didn't know Sibiria, and Sibiria is not like Taiga after all, they are the most valuable mountains. The joy of a chief mountain councilor …

Enzensberger: Yes, the natural resources that one can expect to find there, but …

Kluge: The wild East is much more valuable than Canada or the Old West ever was.

Enzensberger: Yes, just waiting to be discovered.

Kluge: There he goes like an orbiter, so to speak …

Enzensberger: Again with his phrase "Here you are everywhere first", it's such a great phrase of his, he writes …

Kluge: ... and records ...

Enzensberger: Yes, records and of course, they don't even know … There are these minor … you can't really call it Governor, but every province has its civil servants and they don't know what they are dealing with. This man shows up with his small entourage and writes everything down: is he maybe a spy? Yes? So there is some suspicion, they are suspicious, Russian bureaucracy was always like that.

Kluge: And he could give advice, he could tell one of the great land owners in Russia, here on your property …

Enzensberger: ... this is not going to grow, yes.

Kluge: ... not at all. But here's gold, and with a certain number of people that you could recruit from India ...

Enzensberger: Yes, a lot of his advice just trickled away, because people didn't understand what he was saying. That's very obvious.

Kluge: And so he travels to the Chinese border, right  up to the edge of the desert Gobi, and then he doesn't get any further.

Enzensberger: Yes, he doesn't get any further, he has to turn around. And the reports he wrote, I think most of them ended up in the file cabinets of random Ministries, probably in St. Petersburg. But, the thing with the diamonds, we know about that because they actually found the diamonds. And of course the Tzar's court was interested in something like that.

Text: Charles Messier, comet scientist

Kluge: You've also written this famous poem about Messier, the accountant of stars, after whom star clusters have been named.

Enzensberger: Even now many spiral galaxies, they are labeled M1, M32, etc., those are the big …

Kluge: ... the Andromeda Galaxy is also categorized as M?

Enzensberger: Yes, M, because of Messier. And this guy Messier lived during the French Revolution and at first he only … he focused on comets. And sort of accidentally he developed a mapping system …

Kluge: These nebulas are not real stars, he says, they are possibly comets …

Enzensberger: Yes, and Humboldt, who of course realizes that there is no way they are comets, turns into an amateur cosmologist, so to speak, because of course he didn't have any knowledge about the nuclear processes, so he didn't know anything about the stars' source of energy, but he understood the dynamic, the dynamic that leads to the formation of spirals. And he even developed the theory that there could be something like a black hole. And of course that was completely intuitive, because he didn't have the evidence.

Kluge: But his intuition is founded on an assumption that he shares with his friends, companions, basically the entire class of 1800: that the inside of our heads, our brains are basically equivalent to the cosmos.

Enzensberger: Yes of course. That is also … the brain is part of nature in Humboldt's understanding of the word …

Kluge: They developed mutually.

Enzensberger: Yes, he did … the whole idea about the two cultures was very foreign to him, of course, there are no two cultures, the separation that develops with differentiation doesn't exist yet, where now communication between the so called humanities on the one hand and the natural sciences on the other hand isn't possible anymore, he didn't care about that at all …, he didn't understand that.

Kluge: There was also no real opposition between subject and object, they are interchangeable …

Enzensberger: ... with each other, yes. And another interesting point is that he called it plant biography, which you can see in this diagram, when he describes a mountain, the altitudinal zones and so on. Basically it is a pre-stage of environmental thinking. The term "ecology" didn't exist yet, but in his work he focused on groups of plants, on the preconditions for the development of biotopes - he studied that very closely. And he basically was a precursor of ecology. These things are surprising because you realize that someone can have a grasp on something without really knowing the facts. It's a very special ability. Goethe kind of had that too, with his metamorphosis, the archetypal plant.  These people were like diviners in the sciences.

Kluge: The archetypal plant, so there is an archetype of the plant that all other plants are based on. And if you reformulate that a little, it would be just like what Darwin discovered in his study of nature.

Enzensberger: Of course. Darwin was able to describe the mechanisms of the evolutionary process. Goethe wasn't quite there yet.

Kluge: But when you have a closed circle, like the Blue Planet, that is basically law, which means, the whole world is something like a living organism. …

Enzensberger: Yes, obviously, I think that's also already inherent in Humboldt's prose, he describes everything as a single living system.

Text: Earth as a living organism.

Kluge: Hegel, unlike Kant, has this contemptuousness … he says, this thin thread of light, which ties us to the skies ….

Enzensberger: ... says Hegel?

Kluge: ... Hegel. So he says, the starry sky above me is a phrase. In my opinion, that does not necessarily improve Hegel's philosophy.

Enzensberger: No, of course not. That's nonsense, that's nonsense. And I think, the moment man realizes that he's living on a star, that's …

Kluge: … moves the horizon far away.

Enzensberger: Yes

Text: Reflective observations of nature.

Kluge: Reflective observations of nature. Humboldt showers us with intellectual treasures. Humboldt's point of view can still be a comment on current research, which basically added all the information about cosmos that he would have wanted to know.

Enzensberger: Yes, science eventually caught up with many of these intuitions. But there is also anticipation, there is intuition, there is guessing, there are questions that cannot be answered yet. That's the anticipation. And then there is the tedious work, you have to dig deep, and slowly but surely you catch up to your own thought.

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Text: Hubble telescope

Kluge: And sometimes it is a mechanical object that does it, like the wonderful telescope, the Hubble telescope that suddenly records something that used to be invisible to the human eye …

Enzensberger: And of course it provides incredible pictures. And then research has to try … what is a turbulence, right? We have all these mathematical theories, where huge complex systems of differential equations explain how those formations happen. Starting with those nebulas, but the same thing happens in a coffee mug too: if you stir, there's turbulences and they follow the laws of physics. And these 200 years since Humboldt have brought forth possibilities, theories, models that allow us to understand things better. First you see it, then you ask and then there is … And in this sense I simply cannot resist science, because I recognize the poetic force of mankind in it. There is, of course boring science, but that's necessary too. We need workers in the vineyard, who do the constant, sometimes pedantic labor, where you run the same experiment a hundred times. I wouldn't have the patience. But the result is something that we can understand, that we can see. And suddenly you see in these pictures …

Text: Owl-Nebula

Kluge: The Owl-Nebula.

Enzensberger: ... objects that we have seen before in our dreams.

Kluge: ... the Sombrero Galaxy, for instance ...

Enzensberger: Yes, it's fantastic.

Kluge: ...phenomena of light at the North Pole of Saturn. Those are the same lights, polar lights, we have, but ours look very different. But they are gigantic, and now we can see them through the Hubble. Those are the great unknown things.

Enzensberger: Okay, so sometimes one is struck by a certain fear of science, but at the same time there's this fascination that you can't deny. I mean, we are simply the only species that can see something like that.

Text: Astronomer Zwicky

Kluge: And Franz Zwicky for example, the great American astronomer, he also predicted the Black Holes.

Enzensberger: They always do that. It's the first step. And in that sense, the art of divination, as Novalis calls it, the power of divination, there are different names for it. What is that?

Kluge: Intuition. Technically it means prophecy …

Enzensberger: Prophecy, intuition, yes – that is a poetic force.

Text: Humboldt's Bird Cave / An "ecology of oddness"

Kluge: He finds this cave in South America which is named after him now. And in this cave he makes a strange discovery that only someone who already knows a lot can make.

Enzensberger: You mean the one with the birds that are basically active at night?

Kluge: ... they only hunt at night, hundreds come roaring out of the cave, like bats, they are big, basically as big as big chicken and they fly like pigeons. And they feed at night.

Enzensberger: And the Native Americans know them.

Kluge: They slaughter them only once a year.

Enzensberger: Once a year ...

Kluge: ... drain their fat.

Enzensberger: And because of their long experience with them, they know how long it takes for the birds to reproduce. Because if they killed them all,  their food source would run dry.

Text: Alexander von Humboldt in Russia / Hans Magnus Enzensberger about the natural scientist

Kluge: And they live in an ecosystem, in a cave where it's always dark. That means, they live as birds that are active at night although they are in fact  – and unlike the natives, Humboldt immediately realizes that – typical daylight birds that have re-specialized. That's what interests him the most.

Enzensberger: Yes. And with that idea of adaptation, he is very close to Darwin.

Kluge: But more than Darwin he's interested in selective curiosity.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: The blind man who could see …