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Photograph by Patti McConville, Alamy

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

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.

On September 14, 1869, though he’d been dead for ten years, all over the world people celebrated his 100th birthday: In Alexandria, Egypt, there was a fireworks display. Crowds gathered in Melbourne, Adelaide, Moscow, and Mexico City. In Berlin, the day was declared a local holiday and—in the rain—80,000 people showed up to salute him. In America, 15,000 gathered in Syracuse for a mile-long parade, and President Grant attended a Humboldt birthday in Pittsburgh with 10,000 people.

And in New York City, writes Andrea Wulf, in her book about him:

… the cobbled streets were lined with flags, City Hall was veiled in banners and entire houses had vanished behind posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colourful bunting …

… and that afternoon, 25,000 onlookers came to watch the new bust—the one that now stands on 77th Street and Central Park West, the one nobody notices today—get unveiled. Humboldt, even dead, was that big.

So who was he?

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.

Fame is a funny thing.

Every century has its celebrities who spark, fizzle, and vanish. But the thing about Humboldt is that he was prescient, important, the sort of granddaddy of ecological science, and yet, so many of the famous men who praised him are still famous, highly recognizable names and faces, and him—not.

Is there something about science fame that’s different? There are, of course, the immortals: Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein. Einstein we can see when we hear his name. There’s his hair, the photo of him sticking out his tongue.

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Photograph by Hulton Archive, Getty

The other giants are pre-photography, so if I say “Newton,” you might picture an apple falling, but maybe not a face.

Statesmen get their faces on coins. Scientists don’t have to be visible. They can be represented by ideas: Copernicus by a sun surrounded by planets, Darwin by that progression of apes. You don’t have to know what scientists look like to honor them. You can even use an imposter.

Case in point (and this one is a whopper).

In 1900, chemists from all over the world decided it was time to celebrate Antoine Lavoisier, the “Father of Chemistry,” with a statue in Paris. Lavoisier—who had named oxygen, designed the metric system, and discovered the idea of conservation of mass—had also been guillotined during the French Revolution. And now, more than a hundred years later, his fans thought, let’s rehabilitate our man, give him a statue.

Money was raised. The French government put up 50,000 francs; the tsar of Russia made a big contribution. Small donations poured in from all over ($580 from the U.S.); the statue was commissioned, cast, and unveiled. And so Parisians got their Father of Chemistry, arm outstretched, in front of the Eglise de la Madeleine, near his old Parisian home.

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Photographer Unknown, Public Domain

Except—someone noticed, that wasn’t Lavoisier. By some error, the sculptor of the piece had mistakenly copied the face of another Frenchman, the mathematician and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, so that was Condorcet’s head, not Lavoisier’s, looking out at the city. Wrong guy.

What to do? No one had the money to make a new statue, so Paris shrugged, and the while the pedestal said, this is Lavoisier, the statue said no, I’m not—and life went on.

But there’s more. The Marquis de Condorcet didn’t have a good French Revolution either. He was imprisoned and died, probably poisoning himself rather than face the mob. His granddaughter was doing some housecleaning later, and offered a small bust to an American diplomat who worked for Thomas Jefferson. The bust, presumably of M. Condorcet, was sent to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where it was proudly displayed …

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Jean-Antoine Houdon Bust of Marquis de Condorcet, 1785, marble, American Philosophical Society. Gift of William Short, 19 March 1830.

There it sat for more than a hundred years, until a curator from the Louvre, the French museum, happened to be visiting Philadelphia, saw the bust, and said, hey, that’s not Condorcet.

His hosts said, well, who is it then? He recognized the face from sculptures and paintings: That’s Antoine Lavoisier, the father of chemistry.

This shouldn’t have happened. After all, if you look at the two men, Condorcet is kinda pudgy, ruddy cheeked, with a prominent bump on his nose. Lavoisier (on the right ) is thinner, his nose sharper, more imposing. They don’t look the same.

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LEFT: Photograph by DEA, G. DAGLI ORTI, De Agostini, Getty; RIGHT: Photograph by Stock Montage, Getty

But maybe that’s the point. Who cares what scientists look like? It’s their ideas that matter; their discoveries, not their faces. I wouldn’t expect to recognize the Marquis de Condorcet or Antoine Lavoisier or Alexander von Humboldt—heck, I can’t tell Madison from Monroe, but I am a little surprised the the name Humboldt rings so few bells these days.

After all, Humboldt’s big idea, that our planet, for all its differences, is a single complex ecology—vulnerable, fragile, precious—was a bold idea in the 1840s, and is even more important now. Maybe it can’t be summarized in a simple image—a falling apple, or a parade of apes, (though Carl Sagan did a pretty good job with his “little blue dot”)—but Humboldt deserves better.

And who knows? The tide can turn. Reputations bounce back. There’s a new Humboldt biography out. It was a New York Times ‘top ten’ book of 2015; plus he’s got a 250th birthday coming up in 2019, so his name may get a bit more buzz, and if buzz creates buzz, I can imagine a few years from now, instead of saying “Let’s meet on 77th by the hot dog guy,” folks might say, “Let’s grab lunch next to the Humboldt statue …”

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Photograph by Susan Watts, NY Daily News Archive, Getty

… and when that happens, I will be smiling a very quiet smile.