AvH250: Imagining Interdisciplinary Research for the 21st Century from a 19th Century Perspective (2019-2020)


Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) was a 19th-century German scientist most noted for bringing together different scientific and historical perspectives on Earth and the environment in his seminal multivolume work, Kosmos. At its core, his research sought to unify disparate fields of science, knowledge and culture. He is credited for positing the first description of human-induced climate change and providing core launch points to other luminary scientists, naturalists and environmentalists such as Darwin, Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

To mark the 250th anniversary of AvH’s birth, this Bass Connections project will reflect on his interdisciplinary scholarship and imagine the future of interdisciplinarity.

Project Description

The goals of this project are rooted in a cross-disciplinary exploration of the history of AvH toward imagining how future interdisciplinary scholarship can be performed. Key aims will be to:

  • Study AvH’s career and history. The project team will read and discuss Andrea Wulf’s Invention of Nature, which focuses on Humboldt’s extraordinary life, relationships and lasting influence.
  • Study AvH’s seminal contributions. The team will read Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (Foundations of Natural History) and document its contribution to a broader understanding of the environment, including human interactions.
  • Convene a conference of interdisciplinary scholars to map AvH’s contributions to the development of their fields. The team will organize and lead a meeting of approximately 100 scholars from the U.S. and Germany to reflect and report on AvH’s contribution to their disciplines.
  • Document emergent themes and make recommendations for future interdisciplinary scholarship. The team will prepare a report summarizing their takeaways from this project and charting a path forward for interdisciplinary scholarship. 

Anticipated Outputs

Research report on AvH’s contributions to interdisciplinary research; recommendations for future of interdisciplinary research aimed at a broad community (e.g., Duke leaders; AvH Foundation; American Friends of the AvH Foundation)


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Finalize project goals and set timelines; begin weekly meetings led by contributors on project themes; convene AvH250 conference on interdisciplinary science; convene full day meeting to review AvH history and major works, as well as recommendations from the conference on interdisciplinary science
  • Spring 2020: Assign leaders for each theme for interdisciplinary scholarship report; hold weekly meetings to review report component progress; circulate report draft for review among team leaders; make revisions and submit final report

This Team in the News

Said@Duke: Andrea Wulf on Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt

Image: Alexander von Humboldt and the university, by Sami, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Alexander von Humboldt and the university.

Team Leaders

  • Zackary Johnson, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Daniel Richter, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Catherine McMillan
  • Nicole Schwartz

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Paul Baker, Nicholas School of the Environment-Earth and Ocean Sciences
  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • James Clark, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Stefani Engelstein, Arts & Sciences-Germanic Languages and Literature
  • Deborah Jenson, Arts & Sciences-Romance Studies
  • Rob Mitchell, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Priscilla Wald, Arts & Sciences-English