The mysterious Humboldtians: Why they’ll soon be gathering at Macquarie


Professor Ingrid Piller, Alexander Von Humboldt Fellow and chair of the conference committee for next month’s Humboldt-inspired symposium.

humboldt-insetAlexander Von Humboldt might be the most accomplished scientist you have never heard of. The Enlightenment-era geographer and naturalist contributed immensely to the field of botanical geography (and was the first person to describe the phenomenon of human-induced climate change). While he is a household name in Europe, in Australia he enjoys only a fraction of the profile of similar visionaries such as Charles Darwin.

There is, however, one group of Australian academics who are very familiar with Humboldt’s legacy ­­– the Alexander von Humboldt Fellows (also known as ‘Humboldtians’).

Next month they will mark the 250th year since his birth with the 2019 Biennial Symposium of the Australian and New Zealand Associations of Von Humboldt Fellows, to be held at Macquarie University.

Professor Ingrid Piller from the Department of Linguistics is among Macquarie’s Humboldt Fellows and is chair of the conference committee. She says the symposium ­­– which runs from 22-24 November ­– is a unique opportunity for staff to come together in the spirit of Humboldt, who had a fundamental belief that knowledge had to be shared to be meaningful.

“Together with Humboldt Fellows from around Australia and New Zealand and across multiple disciplines, we’ll be looking at the pressing contemporary challenges of research communication, dissemination and impact,” Professor Piller says. “There will be stimulating panels discussing the role of academic publishing, social and broadcast media, academic networks and industry, as well as linguistic and cultural diversity in research communication.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Sakkie Pretorius – another of Macquarie’s Humboldt Fellows ­– says Macquarie could not be a more fitting host for the symposium.

“Humboldt was an incredibly forward-thinking researcher,” he says. “His quest for new knowledge and desire to share knowledge across discipline boundaries echoes Macquarie’s own aspiration – to open up new frontiers together and create leading-edge innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration.

“It is a real honour for Macquarie University to host this milestone conference and I encourage all research staff and HDR candidates to attend and benefit from the opportunities for collaboration.”

Register for the 2019 Biennial Symposium of the Australian and New Zealand Associations of Von Humboldt Fellows, 22-24 November at Macquarie University. 

We spoke to some other Fellows to find out how Humboldt inspires their work, and what they think are the biggest challenges for sharing knowledge as an academic today.

Bronwen Neil
Professor, Department of Ancient History

How does Humboldt’s legacy inspire or guide your work?

The most inspiring for me is Humboldt’s remarkable ability to cross disciplinary boundaries. Unlike many at the time, he was not bound by distinctions between humanities and the sciences – it was all “Wissenschaft” (scientific knowledge) to him.

I am also inspired by his philanthropic impulse, in setting up a fund that would bring scholars to Germany for cultural as well as academic exchange. Being a Fellow has opened up connections with German academics in my field, and given me access to the networks of other Fellows across the world.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for sharing knowledge as an academic today?

The financial challenges facing many scholars in the developing world make it difficult for them to travel and transmit their knowledge internationally, and this makes Western scholarship poorer. It is also getting harder to share local knowledge and cultural differences with the imposition of English as a lingua franca. The November symposium will support knowledge-sharing across national boundaries, without imposing a monolithic (or monolingual) cultural worldview.

Professor Neil will be chairing the Symposium panel ‘Sharing Knowledge between the Humanities and Sciences: Ethical treatment of the dead and dying’ on Sunday 24 November.

Simon Turner
Distinguished Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

How does Humboldt’s legacy inspire or guide your work?

I am inspired by his drive and curiosity to understand the planet and the fact that he never strayed from that vision. As a Humboldt Fellow I was able to spend six months in Germany in 2014, which was a wonderful and productive experience, and I am intending to return for another six months in 2020.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for sharing knowledge as an academic today?

Probably the sheer overload of publications, which makes it hard to keep up and to identify which material to read. On the other hand, smart phones mean you can scan journal content anywhere anytime – making good use of otherwise wasted time on a bus or train, for example.





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