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By David Rooney on

Cruising For Scientists

I commute to work most days by fast catamaran. It’s a delightful way to travel, and lets me see London from a different perspective.

Cruise ship at Tower Bridge, 7 June 2010 (David Rooney)

Right now there are lots of big cruise ships using the River Thames as a stopping-off point. One popular mooring location is a spot beside HMS Belfast, near Tower Bridge. Earlier this week, I spotted a ship there called Alexander von Humboldt:

The Alexander von Humboldt (detail) (David Rooney)

Humboldt was a German scientific explorer of the eighteenth century. He became famous for his journal describing his voyages to Latin America from 1799 to 1804 (available online at the Humboldt Digital Library).

There’s an English-language selection from his journal available, which is an exquisite read. It’s fresh to this day.

As with many ‘celebrities’, he was immortalised in art and material culture, and we’ve a fair bit of Humboldtian stuff in our collection, from portraits of him as a dashing young explorer to busts of him as a grand old man of science.

Alexander von Humboldt c.1806 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Celebrity’s a funny thing. For those who make it, their name can live on seemingly forever (even if on the side of a cruise ship). Yet many who carry out life-changing work remain obscure, their stories little told.

We’re working on a major new history of science gallery here at the Science Museum, which we hope will open in 2014. Right now we’re grappling with new ways to tell stories about the people and stuff of science, and we’ll be talking about our work as we do it, so watch this space (and others). Sadly, though, my idea of a curatorial team cruise on the Alexander von Humboldt  has been rejected. Curses.