5 June 2014

HMS Beagle Project at Seafair Haven 2014

The HMS Beagle Trust has been in talks for several months with the new owner of the tall ship Earl of Pembroke, the medical company Metaco Ltd, and has secured her visit to Milford Haven for its biennial Seafair Haven classic ship festival from 7 to 14 June. The aim is to publicise the work of the Beagle Trust and its local educational partner the Pembrokeshire Darwin Centre.

The highlight will be the educational work with some 30 young people aboard the Earl of Pembroke in Milford Haven for a special outing on 11 June. On that day, the ship will join up with a research vessel from Dale Fort to capture plankton to be brought ashore and studied by the young people under the microscope later in the day. The session will be led by Beagle Trust director Dr Simon Boxall, a leading scientist at Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre, and by Marten Lewis of the Darwin Centre. The initiative will replicate work done by the Beagle Trust in Brazil in 2009 alongside the local tall ship Tocorime. A team from the Welsh ITV programme Coast and Country will be there to film the occasion.  
The Earl of Pembroke in Bristol, May 2014. Photo courtesy of Stewart McPherson.

21 February 2013

February 2013 news update

The HMS Beagle Trust is gathering momentum for the next phase of the project. Our principal focus now is to raise funds to strengthen our team, and we have engaged a fundraising consultancy to help secure funding.

The HMS Beagle Project has now appointed a coordinator, Melanie Hanvey. She will provide administrative support to the directors and work with the UK science team based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. Melanie has a background in oceanography and science communication, and was the onboard research coordinator for a global voyage of M/V Oceanic II.

We also welcome two new patrons: Lord West of Spithead, former First Sea Lord and Head of the Royal Navy, and Professor Simon Keynes, Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon History at Cambridge University. Professor Keynes is Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson, and the addition of Lord West to our team strengthens the political and diplomatic support for the project, and follows the recognition of the trust’s work by Prime Minister David Cameron and President Sebástian Piñera of Chile at the end of last year.

Finally, the HMS Beagle Project’s interest in the Paglesham site, Essex, as HMS Beagle’s final resting place has been rekindled following a meeting with the Malvern Archaeological Diving Unit. They support the theory that any remains of HMS Beagle are here, as they believe that she would not have been removed for breaking up elsewhere due to the risk and cost associated with moving such a small vessel.

31 January 2013

Fundacion Beagle celebrates one year

Fundacion Beagle, our sister charity in Chile, has celebrated its first birthday. Fundacion Beagle was founded in January 2012, and has been working hard to build teams of scientists and educators in Chile to develop the core themes of science, and education and discovery. To find out more about Fundacion Beagle visit their website.

29 October 2012

Beagle Project supporter and blogger Richard Carter

reviews a Guardian ebook 'The Origin of Darwinism'.

Go read and buy the book. As Richard says, it's good stuff for the price of a cup of coffee.

17 August 2012

Just a note of congrats to long-time supporter

Michael Barton and Catherine McMullen on the birth of their daughter Afton. Michael has been supporting us from the beginning and we wish all the family well in bringing the new arrival home and the for the days ahead.

Michael's blog is The Dispersal of Darwin. We expect it to be quiet for the next few months...

Lego Darwin...

on the Galapagos? It had to happen.

27 July 2012

The HMS Beagle Olympics

[Cross-posted from The Friends of Charles Darwin blog]

As the Games of the XXX Olympiad officially commence in London later today, the good people of Much Wenlock in Shropshire can be rightly proud that their own modern version of the Olympic Games, founded in 1850, inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to create what was to become the world's greatest sporting event: the Olympic Games. Yet Much Wenlock was not the only nineteenth-century community to celebrate its own, local ‘Olympic Games’. The City of Liverpool (the world's greatest, in my rather biased opinion) held an annual ‘Grand Olympic Festival’ from 1862–67. Far more importantly, however, the crew of HMS Beagle held their own ‘Olympic Games’ at Port Desire, Patagonia, on Christmas Day, 1833. Charles Darwin takes up the story in his Beagle Diary:
25th [December, 1833] Christmas After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can. —
The HMS Beagle Olympics might not have had the wall-to-wall television and internet coverage enjoyed by modern sports fans (and endured by the rest of us), but fortunately the ship's artist, Conrad Martens, was on hand to record the event for posterity:

‘Slinging the Monkey, Port Desire’, by Conrad Martens (1833).

Shown here is Slinging the monkey, Port Desire, the original of which now resides in Cambridge University Library. The sketch depicts HMS Beagle (L) and the Adventure (R) at anchor. In the foreground, six sailors play the naval game Swinging the Monkey, which involved hanging one of their number upside down until he was able to beat one of his taunting colleagues with a stick, after which, the two men swapped places. Darwin was right to worry about Beagle's crew getting drunk on Christmas Day. At the very start of the voyage, two years earlier, the ship having been stuck in Devonport for weeks, waiting for a change in the weather, Darwin recorded in his diary:
Monday 26th [December, 1831] A beautiful day, & an excellent one for sailing, — the opportunity has been lost owing to the drunkedness & absence of nearly the whole crew. — The ship has been all day in state of anarchy. One days holiday has caused all this mischief; such a scene proves how absolutely necessary strict discipline is amongst such thoughtless beings as Sailors are.- Several have paid the penalty for insolence, by sitting for eight or nine hours in heavy chains. — Whilst in this state, their conduct was like children, abusing every body & thing but themselves, & the next moment nearly crying. — It is an unfortunate beginning, being obliged so early to punish so many of our best men there was however no choice left as to the necessity of doing it.
History does not record which of the Beagle's crew won the most medals at the Beagle Olympics, nor whether they would have put much store in the motto of the modern Olympic Games: Citius, Altius, Fortius [Faster, Higher, Stronger]—although it does have a certain Darwinian ring to it.

10 July 2012

The Geek Manifesto: A rallying cry for evidence-based thinking

A review of new book The Geek Manifesto by guest blogger and long-time HMS Beagle Project advisor Anna Faherty.

I learned a new phrase while reading Mark Henderson’s new book The Geek Manifesto: “evidence abuse”. Like substance abuse, it might start small, but can soon escalate to dangerous proportions. Class A examples of evidence abuse include:
  • Evidence shopping – looking for evidence that supports your view and ignoring anything that doesn’t;
  • Imaginary evidence – citing fictitious evidence to support your view;
  • Clairvoyant evidence – prejudging that the evidence will support your view before it has even been gathered; and
  • Secret evidence – citing unpublished (and therefore inaccessible) evidence to support your view.

A former science editor of The Times, Henderson makes the case that, along with plain old fixing or mishandling of evidence, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have a dangerous habit for all of the above. He discusses the importance of science within society, but more generally emphasises the importance of taking an evidence-based approach to public policy.

The examples of evidence abuse Henderson cites (as might be expected, the ten chapters of the book are supported by 58 pages of references) are a shocking read, especially when shown alongside sobering statistics about the underrepresentation of scientists – people who live and breathe evidence-based thinking – in the political process.

The Geek Manifesto is a call for anyone (both scientists and those who appreciate and understand the methods and value of science) to change this sorry state of affairs. In that sense, it is a much more practical book than that other beacon of evidence-based thinking, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre’s book is a similarly shocking exposé of misrepresented or misappropriated science, yet riled readers (and I defy anyone not to be riled by the shenanigans of a certain ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith) have little recourse to change the situation. Not so with The Geek Manifesto.

We can change things, says Henderson – and without too much effort. Some of his suggestions include:
  • Write to your MP, representative or senator about science issues, share useful information with them and let them know that their pursuit or support of evidence-based policy will encourage you to vote them into a second term.
  • Fact-check politicians’ policy announcements and embarrass any evidence abusers by publishing details to the world through social media.
  • Even if you’re not an expert, share your views in public consultations about government policy – otherwise the received view of the “general public” is likely to be that of those individuals who have been successfully mobilised by politically-savvy lobby groups, which may not always focus on the evidence.
  • Buy or access The Times on the days when its science supplement Eureka is published, or read and comment on the Guardian’s science blogs  (which are contributed to by HMS Beagle Project director Karen James). Both will demonstrate to the mainstream media that good quality science coverage pays.
  • Give friendly advice to journalists when you see them getting something wrong. If they fail to heed it, complain to their editor, or the Press Complaints Commission.
  • Join the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Science is Vital, or support Sense About Science.

Even if you don’t want to take the political process in hand yourself, The Geek Manifesto still provides a thought-provoking discussion of “why science matters” (the subtitle of the book) to a range of social issues, including education, the criminal justice system and economics as well as the more obvious areas of healthcare and the environment.

It includes an excellent summary of what science is (and what it is not) – my favourite part of which is the idea that science isn't a noun, it's a verb, which is rather reminiscent of Charles Darwin's penchant for “geologising”... While it’s a great idea to send every British MP a copy of the entire book, how many will actually read it? Printing out pages seven to nine and forcing them each to learn how science works by heart might perhaps be a more effective option.

Henderson also shares an insightful analysis of why the union of science and politics is so problematic – just like journalists and scientists, politicians and scientists think very differently and value different things. Changing your mind is de rigeur for scientists who come across new evidence; it’s a sign of weakness for a politician. Scientists value experiments and what they can learn from failure; politicians won’t admit that most new policies are in fact experiments and therefore fail to learn anything from them. Scientists want to answer questions; politicians want to talk about solutions. Scientists think their work, and “the numbers”, should do the talking; politicians want qualitative narratives about outcomes and impact. Scientists value evidence-based policy; politicians want policy-based evidence. And so on…

There’s no shying away from outlining the work scientists themselves need to do to improve their own lobbying and communication skills, though. Or of admitting that many policy decisions may ultimately go against the evidence – for a number of reasons. Henderson simply wants politicians to be honest if that turns out to be the case.

Still, the book isn’t just calling for politicians to be “intelligent consumers of science, [who] must know how to interrogate purportedly scientific findings to judge their reliability... be able to recognise the rules of thumb by which scientists evaluate others' work, such as good controls, peer-reviewed publication and republication, and ... have a feel for spotting extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence." 

Henderson is also aiming towards everyone having a sound appreciation of the wonder of science, the contributions it makes to the modern world and the power of its experimental methods – which can be applied to just about any part of our lives.

That’s an aim shared by the vision of the HMS Beagle Project. So, perhaps we should add another bullet point to the list above:

If you're not already a card-carrying geek, I recommend The Geek Manifesto, along with Goldacre's Bad Science, as an excellent way of getting up to speed on how science works, why it's important and how evidence is often abused, miscommunicated or full-on ignored at the general public’s expense. If you’re a scientist, you’ll find The Geek Manifesto shocking and inspirational in equal measure, and almost certainly be moved to do something about it. As an HMS Beagle Project supporter, you're already making a difference, but there's plenty more ideas in the book if you want to become more active.

Anna Faherty is a Cambridge University Natural Sciences graduate who specialised in physics and theoretical physics. She’s an award-winning lecturer and has developed school-level learning resources for a range of clients, including national government-funded institutions such as the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum. Despite a shortage of specialist physics teachers, under Education Secretary Michael Gove’s policy would be unable to train as a school teacher – because she only achieved a third class degree. The evidence for Gove’s decision is unclear…

8 July 2012

Blogkeeping: important stuff.

1. Dr Karen James, scientist of this parish, has jumped a very important hurdle. She has made the first cut for NASA astronaut training. If there is anyone not aware of this (Dr. K is a prolific tweeter) do send her congrats and best wishes for whatever comes next in the selection process. This is big, it is clever and it is richly deserved.

Britain had this talented lady working under our scientific eaves and we?

Let her escape to her native America.

2. Who isn't interested in dinosaurs? If you are, Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings is a great read. A bone-a fide palaeontologist, smart as paint and writes well.

4 July 2012

Darwin's Armada and beyond - are sailing and science the perfect match?

By Australian guest blogger Rachel Slatyer. Rachel is a PhD candidate studying adaptation in alpine grasshoppers. She spends her spare time sailing on tall ships and hopes to combine her science and sailing passions through involvement in the HMS Beagle Project.

I recently started reading Darwin's Armada, about the voyages undertaken by Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Wallace, and how these voyages influenced their scientific ideas.  The results – not least the theory of evolution by natural selection – speak for themselves. It made me think about how many other voyages led to scientific discoveries, or provided an opportunity for a researcher to clear their mind and make sense of a problem.

For my birthday last year, my Dad gave me an inspired gift – a book entitled Voyages of Discovery. Upon opening the book I immediately decided I was born in the wrong era (and the wrong gender, because a woman in the early days of sailing exploration would’ve had a mighty hard time getting a berth on a ship, let alone a position as a scientist). 

While this book focussed on natural history - and on the beautiful illustrations produced on voyages before photography - I was sure other fields must have had their own “voyages of discovery”. I set about doing some background reading and stumbled across some amazing stories – some well-known and others less so (at least, I’d never heard of them!).

With the recent transit of Venus, and my work on the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour earlier in the year, the first example that sprung to mind was the Endeavour’s voyage to track the 1769 transit of Venus. Four times every 243 years, Venus passes between the Earth and the sun. With a few measurements and some complicated mathematics, once can calculate the distance from Earth to the Sun. 

Cook left England in 1768, sailing the Endeavour to Tahiti, where the Royal Society had decreed the transit be viewed. Much to my disappointment, Cook and the astronomer Charles Green observed the transit from the shore, as they needed a stable platform and plenty of space – two features entirely lacking on a ship and particularly on the Endeavour – for accurate observations.

Captain Cook passed through Java, home to the black panther, on the return voyage from Tahiti.
He lost 40% of his crew to a fever picked up there.
Sixty years after Endeavour left England, an armada of exploration ships departed the shores of the United States. The USS Vincennes, USS Peacock, US Brig Porpoise, USS Relief, US Schooner Sea Gull and the US Schooner Flying, with a combined displacement of 2157 tons, carried 346 men including 7 scientists, around the world in 4 years (there’s nothing quick about sailing expeditions). 

The figures from the expedition are mind-boggling – nearly 3,000 bird, mammal and fish specimens, over 50,000 plants representing 10,000 species. These collections were to form the foundations of the Smithsonian Institute, and 24 scientific volumes were produced from discoveries made during the expedition, covering fields including meteorology, zoology, botany and physics. 

The US Ex Ex visited New Zealand and brought back ethnographic artefacts.
Today, tall ships still ply these beautiful coastlines.
Another 60 years on, in 1893, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen sailed into the Polar Sea on his ship the Fram. A far cry from the US Expedition, Nansen took just 12 men with him. Nansen’s goal was to reach the North pole and, in doing so, prove Henrik Mohn’s theory of an east-to-west current over the Arctic Ocean – this it did spectacularly and also proved that the polar ice sheet was just that – ice – with no continent buried underneath. 

How did he do this? Well, Nansen designed a ship specifically to withstand pressure from the ice and a hull shaped so that the ice forced it upwards rather than down into the ocean depths. Nansen then sailed her into the ice pack and waited for the currents to push the ship to the North Pole. After 18 months of inching across the Arctic Ocean, Nansen left the ship in an attempt to reach the Pole. Although Nansen didn’t make it to the Pole, he went further north than anyone had been before. His ship continued her slow and steady progress to the North Atlantic and was finally freed from the ice after nearly three years.

Each of the voyages above embarked with the specific purpose of making scientific discoveries. Others, however, stumbled on scientific breakthroughs unexpectedly. In 1840, German doctor Robert Mayer signed on to a Dutch ship bound for Java. During the voyage, Mayer came across two interesting phenomena: first, that the ocean becomes warmer in a storm and second, that in warm environments (like Indonesia) blood from the veins was more brightly red than it is in cold environments (like Germany). 

Somehow, from these seemingly unrelated observations, Mayer formulated the first law of thermodynamics – the conservation of energy. Unfortunately for Mayer, English physicist James Joule came up with the same idea not long after and, being a qualified physicist, was given all the credit. I still think this counts as a discovery made at sea.

A fall from here would be a demonstration of the first law of thermodynamics, with your potential energy at the top of the mountain being converted into kinetic energy as you fall.
One thing I realised while I was reading about these voyages was that there were a lot of them! It seems like the great age of sail coincided with a great age of scientific discovery. Was this a coincidence? 

Here is a question to ponder: did sailing ships serve merely as vehicles, in the days before aeroplanes, or were they (and are they still) a quintessential component of scientific discovery? In other words, is there something about being stuck in a small, crowded space in the middle of the ocean for weeks or months on end that inspires scientific inquiry? 

I’m inclined to believe that bobbing up and down on a still day, or racing along with a good wind abaft the beam allows the mind (at least the part that isn’t concerned with the weather, the minutiae of sailing the ship or the delicious smells wafting up from the galley) to wander into all sorts of weird and wonderful places and forces one to take the time to let the little whispers of ideas grow and develop. And if that’s not enough, a sailing ship did, and still can, take you to remote and wonderful places where there is always the possibility of discovering something new.

30 June 2012

The 21st Century Naturalist (Or What the HMS Beagle Project Means to Me)

Guest post by Rob Viens, science teacher and current Dean of the Science Division at Bellevue College in Washington State. See here for Rob's earlier post about facing illness and fear in the jungle.

For the past few months I have been following Darwin's voyage on the Beagle through the daily entries in his personal diary and field notebooks – trying to get to know him as a person and relive his first encounters with the natural environment of the New World.  
Down House/English Heritage recreation of Charles Darwin at work in his cabin.
Photo Lisa Taylor
Among other things, I have come to the conclusion that being a naturalist may be a lost art and, more importantly, that the world needs naturalists like Charles Darwin more then ever before. And although having more full-fledged, full-time naturalists would be ideal, I think it would benefit all scientists to have a certain degree of training as a naturalist. Why, you might ask?  Well, because naturalists are a particularly unique type of field scientist that can (1) make good observations, (2) integrate many different fields of study, and (3) share their discoveries by writing about the natural world. Let me elaborate.

First – as others have noted, Darwin was a fantastic observer of the natural world, a skill that is particularly well honed in any good naturalist. Observations are the cornerstone of good science (along with good questions, as Rachel Slatyer noted in an earlier blog). They are the foundation of good interpretations – so if the observations are bad, the hypotheses are meaningless.  Placing a scientist in an explored region with only a pen and paper requires them to really think about how to observe and how to use descriptive writing to paint a picture.  I like to emphasize this with my students and really try to have them describe things in as much detail as possible.

Some of Darwin's finch sketches, reproduced in the beautiful blog Venetian Red,
wherein two artists turn the tables and explore ideas through art.
Second – naturalists have the ability to synthesise many different disciplines. The 20th century saw scientists become more and more specialized.  Today, for example, there are biologists who specialize in the A-G-C's of genetics without ever examining a "living" organism. Many of the global environmental issues of today require us to take a much more interdisciplinary look at a problem if we ever hope to come to a solution.

In this regard Darwin was a exceptional naturalist.  Don't get me wrong - he made mistakes (which is OK in science) - but I never cease to be amazed at the range of subjects Darwin wrote about during his travels. Geology, of course, was a central theme, as are biology and ecology, but he also hypothesised about meteorology, astronomy, oceanography, chemistry, and many other subfields of science. His attention to detail meant that his hypotheses were often on the mark.  

St Paul's Rocks today - still not a typical ocean island.
Photo John Vergari, Wikimedia Commons
One example of this came in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he recognised that St. Paul's Rocks was not typical ocean island but instead was made of the rare rock serpentinite (which we now know is a piece of the mantle). This is amazing considering that he was a 23-yr old with just a few months of formal training in geology (via Adam Sedgwick).

Third – a true naturalist is more than a scientist (and I mean that not as an insult to scientists J). They are writers and often poets or artists, and have the ability to share the wonder of nature with the rest of the world. Ed Abbey (not a scientist, but a good observer in his own right) once wrote:

"Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess the ability to communicate to the rest of us the sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers."    

(from Abbey's essay Come on In, excerpted by Ranger Kathryn Burke of Arches National Park, a geological wonderland Darwin might have loved)

Darwin had this skill, too. I'm only about five months into his diary/journals (I'm trying not to read ahead so that I can relive the trip in real time) and I can already appreciate Darwin's poetic writing style, and his ability to infuse his excitement into his words. Take, for example, his first impression of he New World Forest upon arriving in Brazil in February 1832:

“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. —if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over. — if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise. — I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.” 
(Darwin's Beagle Diary, 28 February 1832)

The Brazilian forest as Darwin experienced it, from a painting he cited.
Forêt vierge du Brésil, Charles de Clarac
What this all boils down to, is that before making the trip on the Beagle, Darwin had the potential to be a great scientist – he certainly had an eye for detail and loved to collect and catalog things. But what really made him a great scientist was having the opportunity to hone those skills as a naturalist on the voyage of the Beagle.  There is nothing like being in the field to open your eyes (and ears and nose) to the details and relationships among the living and nonliving world.  Reconstructing the Beagle, and setting sail to explore the natural word, has the potential to inspire new ideas and train new scientists with the skills of a naturalist.

So what does the HMS Beagle Project mean to me?  It is a chance to re-explore the world through the eyes of a naturalist – absorbing the whole of nature and synthesizing the "natural sciences" into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a chance to rekindle the role of the naturalist and train a new generation of scientists to be able to observe, hypothesise and solve problems in a holistic way.  It is a chance to share the beauty and splendour of the natural world through art and poetry.  When I think about how important this trip was to Darwin, and the legacy it has left us, I can only wonder what having another opportunity to explore the world via a 21st century Beagle could mean for the future.  I hope some day to know the answer.

This reproduction of Darwin's Tree of Life diagram is from a Levittown, PA high school biology website, worth a visit in itself to see how dedicated teachers are getting science across to young people.
As a newcomer to the project, I'm curious to know - what does the HMS Beagle Project mean to you?

26 June 2012

Bird's eye view of the Beagle's grave.

A fascinating blog post from Sean B. Palmer.

He has published aerial photos and maps of the Beagle's proposed resting place near Paglesham.

The site was identified in 2004 by Dr Robert Prescott formerly of ST Andrews University.  Ground penetrating radar shows the outline of something hull-like 5 metres down in the ooze. There is a pretty good document trail suggesting that this is indeed the Beagle's final berth.

As we have said here before, HMS Beagle is one of the most significant ships in British, world and scientific history.

If the spot marked in Mr. Palmer's position is indeed Beagle's present resting place it should not be her last.

No nation that calls itself a civilized, advanced society should let such an icon of adventure, exploration and scientific endeavour rest under five metres of Essex mud.

25 June 2012

Why we need a Beagle (n)

To help stop this kind of  intellectual abuse of schoolchildren happening.

US creationist text book uses Loch Ness Monster to 'disprove' evolution.

As the good book says, 'Canst though draw out leviathan with a hook?' Not in this case, it doesn't exist.

'Ya great numpties,' as they'd say on the banks of Loch Ness.

Lonesome George 19??-2012

I just learned that Lonesome George, last of the Pinta Island tortoises, has died, signaling the extinction* of that subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni.

The coverage is still flooding in, but the best so far is this short but poignant interview with Director of the Galapagos National Park. It seems George's body was discovered by Fausto Llerena, "a park ranger who coincidentally rescued Lonesome George from Pinta island in 1972 and took care of him all these years." (h/t to @VaranusSalvator @cubismwonder for the link)

I'm just one of hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of visitors who "met" Lonesome Gorge (Solitario Jorge in Spanish) in his pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. In my case it was on October 22, 2010, while I was visiting Galapagos as part of the Wellcome Trust's Galapagos Live project.
A sign pointing the way to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos. Photo by the author.
Galapagos Live participants look into Lonesome George's pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Photo by the author.
Lonesome George's pen. There he is at center-right. The smaller tortoise at center-left is one of several females of another subspecies of tortoise with which he shared his pen (but alas, not his bed). Photo by the author.
Lonesome George. Photo by the author.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is the beating heart of science in Galapagos. It's run by the venerable Charles Darwin Foundation, an "international not-for-profit organization that provides scientific research and technical information and assistance to ensure the proper preservation of the Galapagos Islands." Among its many (many) scientific activities, the station runs a tortoise breeding program which rears young tortoises for reintroduction into the wild.
Galapagos giant tortoise eggs. Photo by the author.

But the fact that I saw Lonesome George with my own eyes isn't the reason I'm so upset to learn the news of his death. It's the fact that he was, and still is, a symbol.

He is the literal symbol of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galapagos Conservancy and the Galapagos Conservation Trust, among others. He even has his own clothing brand (great stuff, by the way, and a portion of proceeds supports conservation).
But more importantly he is a symbol of human efforts to slow a mass extinction of our own making. And I hope and believe he will continue on as that symbol beyond his gravelly grave.


To learn more about the formerly Lonesome George, I recommend Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon by Henry Nicholls.

*Russello et al. (2007) reported the discovery of a tortoise "of Pinta ancestry"on Isabela Island. Now we just need one more…

23 June 2012

Darwin disperser Michael Barton

brings to our attention this charming illustration of the young Darwin as an Galapagosian iguana might have seen him.

The pic will be gracing the pages of Jason Chin's forthcoming book Island: A Story of the Galapagos.

21 June 2012

Go and admire this model of HMS Beagle...

5 years in the building, a labour of love by Richard Painter of the Rocky Mountain Shipwrights.

Dawkins on Bacon (the radio show, not the food).

A rather good interview with Richard Dawkins on BBC Radio 5 Live's Richard Bacon show today.

The interview was loosely about the forthcoming  paperback release of Dawkins' book The Magic of Reality (Guardian review here). Richard B asked Richard D the questions that many would, and gave his guest time to answer without interrupting. A good deal of the interview deals with evolution, its place in science, the world and its doubters.

A worthwhile podcast to download, which you can here, for the next 30 days. Scroll in 3 minutes before starting to listen.

Apologies, your Majesty.

The HMS Beagle Project really should have been more on the ball in congratulating Her Majesty the Queen on her 60 years on the throne.

Stage left: 'Oh for heaven's sake, has the infernal man found a link between the Jubilee and HMS Beagle?'

Yes. For not long after her launch in 1820, HMS Beagle took part in the parade of sail on the River Thames to mark the coronation of King George the IV, during which she had the distinction of being the first man o' war to sail under the old London Bridge. (Which, in itself must have been quite a feat of seamanship on the part of the officers and crew.)

Watching the parade of boats that braved the wretched weather to salute Her Majesty, I was deeply sorry that we haven't yet raised the necessary cash to start bolting wood together, far less have a Beagle reprising her 1820 role in 2012. Asking people for £5 million to build a boat at a time when the world economy is cratering is not an easy thing to do. But we aren't daunted. We are not here running this organization for its own sake, we want to get that boat built.
So, Prince Charles or Prince William, whichever of you ever next sits in Westminster Abbey with the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest (scroll to 1.30 to avoid the presenter's blithering and get to the music) ringing in his ears, here's a note for your secret Coronation party plan: there will be an HMS Beagle available for your parade of sail.

Count on it.

29 April 2012

My other ship’s a clipper: inside the restored Cutty Sark

A tour of the newly restored Cutty Sark by guest blogger Anna Faherty. Anna is a writer, editor and lecturer and a long-term advisor to the HMS Beagle Project. She works with major publishers and national museums and has just completed a mobile learning project for the National Maritime Museum.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn't get involved with the HMS Beagle Project because of a love of ships, the Royal Navy or maritime history. What attracted me was a huge amount of admiration for Darwin, and in particular, for his sense of adventure and enquiry.

Of course, in the Britain of the 1800s, an aspiring adventurer needed one thing above all else: a ship. Ships were the only way to escape our small island, and HMS Beagle was the ship that not only carried Darwin around the world, it also sparked an incredible intellectual adventure. The six years Darwin spent travelling as a naturalist companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy set him on a path that ultimately led to the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. That's why the world came to know the Beagle, and that's why it is still one of our country's best-known ships today.

Ten years after The Origin of Species outlined Darwin's world-changing theory, and just as updates for the fifth edition were being finalised, another legendary ship first set sail. The Cutty Sark wasn't a Royal Navy ship, and she certainly wasn't intended for science, surveying or fighting. Over twice the length of the Beagle, the Cutty Sark was a 'clipper', a term coined for long, narrow ships with tall masts and large sail areas. Powered by 32,000 square feet of canvas, the Cutty Sark's streamlined shape was designed for one thing: speed.

Entering the newly restored Cutty Sark at Greenwich you are left in no doubt about why speed was of the essence. Strolling through a doorway sliced through the American rock elm hull, you find yourself in the midst of tea, tea and more tea. Here in the depths of the lower deck you walk on a floor of tea chests, stoop below a ceiling of tea, and even smell the distinctive leaves around you. Unfortunately, not being a tea-drinker myself, I was unable to identify the specific chosen aroma - and neither could the member of staff I asked.

A ceiling of tea chests in the lower hold
We may be known as a nation of tea drinkers, but it's difficult to imagine just how big the tea business was in the late 19th century. In 1849 Britain imported over 25 million kilograms of Chinese tea. That's enough for 8 billion cups. And with customers keen to drink the freshest brew, using the fastest ships wasn't just important, it made you more money. The first tea to arrive back home commanded a premium price, making 'first to market' everyone's aim. The Cutty Sark didn't disappoint. She may famously have been beaten by the Thermopylae in 1872, after losing her rudder off Indonesia, but she regularly got away from China before her rivals.

Often described as ‘the last surviving tea clipper’, the Cutty Sark wasn't all about the Shanghai to London route, though. When steamships took over the tea trade – they were faster and also more able to navigate the Mediterranean on the shorter Suez Canal route – the Cutty Sark was put to several new uses. She even ended up visiting many of the same ports as the Beagle had done years before.

Clambering up from below, the tween deck reveals the ship's post-tea purpose: carrying wool back from Australia. You also learn a little about the crew and life on board. Despite her size, the Cutty Sark had less than half as many men aboard as the Beagle, with only 19 required once she swapped tea chests for wool bales. Their regular dinner was apparently pea soup and salt pork and they drank coffee and lime. This deck also includes a table-top interactive tool where you can try your hand steering a course back from Australia. If you make the most of the trade winds and avoid the doldrums, you might make it in 70-80 days.

I wasn't quite as quick as ol' Captain Woodget 
In 1895 (26 years after she was launched) the Cutty Sark was sold to a Portuguese company. Renamed Ferreira, she transported various cargoes from Lisbon to Brazil, what was then Portuguese East Africa and the Southern USA. At the ripe old age of 53 – by which time HMS Beagle had been retired, broken up and (probably) half-buried in an Essex marsh – the Cutty Sark was bought by a Captain Dowman of Falmouth, Devon "for sentimental reasons." No longer used for active duty, she became a training vessel for boys joining the Royal Navy and was also opened to the public – therefore becoming an ‘exhibition ship’ before either HMS Victory or the USS Constitution followed suit.

The main mast stands 47m above the deck
Stepping out of the low-ceilinged storage areas onto the main deck is a thrilling experience. You're in the thick of a maritime adventure, surrounded by rigging and ropes and able to hold the ship's wheel below flapping flags. You can explore the crew's quarters, including a compact and bijou Captain's cabin, which can be hired for your own private dining experience.

That 'corporate entertainment' aspect comes into its own at the last port of call on your visit: the other-worldly under-ship space that is the perfect venue to impress clients. Standing under the gleaming barnacle-free copper-clad hull (another reason the ship was so fast) is a slightly surreal, but entirely memorable experience. This isn't a coincidence. Building in opportunities to generate revenue from corporate hire is an integral part of the business plan, where ordinary visitors and school groups aren’t enough to underwrite the attraction’s running costs. The HMS Beagle Project could surely learn some lessons from this in our own development.

The ship is suspended in a dry berth 3m above the floor
If my first sight of the revamped ship is anything to go by, public, corporate and school-age visitors will all be impressed. Although I’d seen and visited the ship before, she’s been under wraps for so long that I was visibly shocked by my first view as I walked out of the Docklands Light Railway station that bears her name. It's not simply her size – though she is big. The elegant masts (the tallest of which reaches over 45m above her deck) and the rigging (all 11 miles of it) designed to hold 32 sails are stunning. She may be stranded in what some have described as a ‘hovercraft’ but she's no less impressive for it.

Even in the gloomy April rain, the masts and rigging are impressive

All in all Cutty Sark is a spectacular sight that conjures up the adventure of the era, and demonstrates the heart-stopping impact of a beautiful ship. A visit should be compulsory for any wavering Beagle sponsors. Even for a non-maritime buff, she made me believe in the impact a rebuilt Beagle could have, and she's already steering others on a course towards celebrating our maritime heritage. So, until we can make Professor Simon Keynes’s wish come true, for now, my other ship’s a clipper…

See more pictures of the restored Cutty Sark at Anna’s Flickr page.