Learning from Humboldt: Communicating science

A recent anniversary event and workshops in Bonn portray Alexander von Humboldt as a role model for science communication.

“Alexander von Humboldt wanted to be heard not just by his colleagues, but by the widest audience possible”, says Prof Oliver Lubrich, Chair for Modern German Literature/Comparative Literature at the University of Bern. “He used every means and medium at his disposal to democratise science.” Prof Lubrich has no doubt that Alexander von Humboldt was not just a universal genius, but a role model for science communication. Few know Humboldt’s work as well as Prof Lubrich does. As one of the editors of the 250th anniversary Edition of Humboldt’s collected works (published on 14 September), Prof Lubrich has compiled an impressive wealth of publications.

Humboldt: Master of the infographic

As well as a huge number of books, Alexander von Humboldt published around 1.000 articles and essays in 15 languages in 1.240 international newspapers and journals on five continents. “Especially the many short texts written by Humboldt have given us a new perspective on him as an author”, says Prof Lubrich. “He thought very carefully about how and where he could publish his articles”, he continues. “They appeared in major European publications such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung as well as in the Economist and the New York Times.” According to Prof Lubrich, Humboldt’s works covered a wide range of genres and made pioneering use of data visualisation. Prof Lubrich illustrates his point with a colour copperplate engraving (85 x 60 cm) entitled ‘Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins’, which features text and images. Centred on Mount Chimborazo, it is an early example of an infographic on the vegetation of the Andes.

Celebrating the Spirit of Humboldt

“Humboldt is still very important”, says Dr Denise Margaret Matias. “His story lives on.” Dr Matias is a research associate at the Biodiversity and People research unit of the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt am Main and an alumni of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s International Climate Protection Fellowship (ICP). Dr Matias comes from the Philippines and belongs to the first cohort of the scholarship holder grantees in 2010. At an event marking the tenth anniversary of the fellowship programme in Bonn, she heard Prof Lubrich’s opening lecture and took advantage of the continuing education programme on science communication. This programme comprised four workshops (video clips, storytelling, science slams and visualisation) and demonstrated contemporary methods of public relations work for researchers. One of the main questions was “How can we prepare information for a non-specialist audience and different target groups?” 

Dialogue between science and politics

Dr Matias sees politicians as a Major target group. “Politicians need to be able to understand scientists if policy-makers are to make science-based decisions”, she says. Dr Matias introduces the subjects of her research focus into public debates. At the UN World Climate Conference in Katowice in 2018 she spoke at a discussion on climate politics that included the German Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU). Dr Matias introduced a pilot project that conducts research into the advantages of climate change insurance for indigenous communities. “Politicians find some topics more attractive”, she says. “And this makes effective science communication even more important.” The workshops in Bonn demonstrated how to achieve this with reference to four formats.

Video Clips

Video clips have many advantages: They provide entertainment and a clear illustration of complex topics for the target group. They have a greater emotional impact than almost any other medium and are easy to disseminate over a long period. Videos also allow scientists to address their target group directly and with authenticity. Those who find appearing in front of a camera difficult can undertake media training to increase their confidence.


While a video clip requires appropriate images, what you need for storytelling is a good storyline. The first questions are: “Can I combine my topic with a catchy narrative?” “Is there a central figure to whom the target group can relate?” Participants at the workshop in Bonn came up with a range of gripping tales that presented people fighting against deforestation in Africa or for sustainable fishing in Latin America as heroes of stories with a serious scientific basis.

Science Slams

Presenters at science slams take the offensive in the competition for attention. These scientists have just a few minutes to present their research on the stage in front of an audience. If you want to make an impact, you need to stand out and do the unexpected using humour, passion or by asking the public questions. Even a self-contained presenter can radiate charisma. The important thing is that the style of the presentation fits not only the audience, but the scientist presenting.


Science communication often quotes the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” as a practical tip. The basis for visualisation is a detailed sketch and a feel for structure and emphasis. Focusing on a central motif provides an eyecatcher on an infographic, while numbers, lines and arrows provide orientation for the viewer. Restrained use of colour is an effective way to highlight the key areas.

Author: Johannes Göbel

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October 2019


11 October 2019

@Rizal: We have included links with further information in the German version of the article. If you understand German, please check them out as they provide examples and might be helpful to you...

9 October 2019

It would be better by giving some examples. Thank you anyway

Simón Pérez-Martínez
9 October 2019

I read his book "Political Essay on the Island of Cuba" of 1826 and I was surprised that his scientific writing style was very similar to what it is today, short and precise. This differs greatly from the anecdotal style of the 18th and 19th century traveler stories that I have been able to read. It is good to know that he was also a good communicator of science. Being a scientific author and, at the same time, being a scientific communicator is not always successful.

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