31 August 2007

"I would have taken all risks"

Today in 1831 "Chas." Darwin mailed this letter to J.S. Henslow.


Tuesday 30th.—

My dear Sir

Mr. Peacocks letter arrived on Saturday, & I received it late yesterday evening.— As far as my own mind is concerned, I should I think, certainly most gladly have accepted the opportunity, which you so kindly have offered me.— But my Father, although he does not decidedly refuse me, gives such strong advice against going.—that I should not be comfortable, if I did not follow it.— My Fathers objections are these; the unfitting me to settle down as a clergyman.— my little habit of seafaring.— the shortness of the time & the chance of my not suiting Captain Fitzroy.— It is certainly a very serious objection, the very short time for all my preparations, as not only body but mind wants making up for such an undertaking.— But if it had not been for my Father, I would have taken all risks.—

What was the reason, that a Naturalist was not long ago fixed upon?— I am very much obliged for the trouble you have had about it—there certainly could not have been a better opportunity.— I shall come up in October to Cambridge, when I long to have some talk with you.— I will write to Mr. Peacock at Denton, (in Durham?) but his direction is written so badly, that even with the assistance of the Post office, I am not certain about it— Would you therefore be so kind, if you know his or C. Fitzroys direction, would you send one line to the same effect.— My trip with Sedgwick answered most perfectly.— I did not hear of poor Mr. Ramsays loss till a few days before your letter. I have been lucky hitherto, in never losing any person for whom I had any esteem or affection. My Acquaintance, although very short, was sufficient to give me those feelings in a great degree.— I can hardly make myself believe he is no more.— He was the finest character I ever knew.—

Yours most sincerely | my dear Sir. Chas. Darwin

I have written to Mr. Peacock, & I mentioned that I have asked you to send one line in the chance of his not getting my letter.— I have also asked him to communicate with Cap. Fitzroy.— Even if I was to go my Father disliking would take away all energy, & I should want a good stock of that.— Again I must thank you; it adds a little to the heavy, but pleasant load of gratitude which I owe to you.—

Postmark: Shrewsbury AU 3<0> 18<3>1

This and other letters can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project.

30 August 2007

Reasons to build a Beagle (n+2)

In an open letter to quotable atheists published in Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic and author of Why Darwin Matters writes:
Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad...

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”

2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people’s consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in “The Burden of Skepticism,” a 1987 lecture, “You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it.”


This is just an abbreviated clip from Shermer's full open letter which can be found here. The bold face above is mine; it indicates why this is posted under the heading "Reasons to build a Beagle". For more reasons to build a Beagle, click the label of the same name below and revisit the "reasons" posts from our old blog spot here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Thanks to Johnny Crow in Las Vegas for the tip off.

28 August 2007

25 August 2007

Hell freezes over in Texas

Terrence Stutz of The Dallas Morning News reports this week that the Texas State Board of Education, which will set the science curriculum for Texas public schools next year, is against the teaching of “intelligent design”, despite the fact that several board members say they are creationists.

[here’s a pause so you can read that again]

[here’s another pause for you to indulge in a dance of joy*]

Stutz interviewed 11 board members (including 7 Republicans) and asked them about their views on whether intelligent design should be taught in science class. Only one respondent said she was in favor of including intelligent design in the curriculum. The chairman of the board, Don McLeroy, a self-described creationist, said,
"Creationism and intelligent design don't belong in our science classes. Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community – and intelligent design does not. When it comes to evolution, I am totally content with the current standard."
Hip hip hurrah for Mr McLeroy!* But then—and this felt like having an ice cube dropped down the back of my dance-of-joy-warmed tee-shirt—he said that he was unhappy with current biology textbooks as they don't cover the weaknesses of the theory of evolution. His grievances include “large time gaps” in the fossil record. Can we please be done with this particular creationist claim already? Every aspect of it has been thoroughly trounced.

No stranger to the ice cube effect herself, Kathy Miller, a Texas-based champion of separation of church and state, was skeptical that board members had really given up on teaching intelligent design.
"Don McLeroy and the other ideologues who now control the state board have said repeatedly in the past that they want public school science classes to teach creationism and other religion-based concepts," she said. "So we have no doubt that they'll find a way to try, either by playing politics with the curriculum standards or censoring new science textbooks later on."
Kathy Miller's skepticism is borne out by polls that show that two-thirds of Texans (including Texas governor Rick Perry and former Texas governor George W. Bush) want creationism taught in public schools along with evolution.
Board Vice Chairman David Bradley, who also voted against the biology books in 2003, acknowledged that he doesn't believe in one of the main tenets of Darwin's theory – that humans evolved from lower life forms. "If some of my associates want to believe their ancestors were monkeys, that is their right. I believe God is responsible for our creation," said Mr. Bradley, R-Beaumont. "Given that none of today's scientists were around when the first frog crawled out of the pond, there is no one who can say exactly what happened."
Well, actually, Mr Bradley, it wasn’t a frog; it didn’t even resemble a frog. The first primitive amphibian traits are seen in the fossils of Ichthyostega and Acanthostega of the late Devonian period (~400 million years ago). Icthyostega was succeeded by the six-foot long Eryops, an amphibian that had the ability to walk on land.

to anyone except Mr Bradley who can guess where Eryops fossils are found. Here's a clue:

"Don't mess with Texas."

But I digress.

The strange thing is that Mr No-way-did-I-come-from-a-monkey Bradley also said he is not interested in challenging the teaching of evolution.
"There's always room for improvement, but I haven't heard a loud drumbeat for massive change ... I do want to make sure the next group of textbooks includes the strengths and weaknesses of evolution."
Well, if he really means what he says* (and, as Kathy Miller warns, the jury's still out on that), that sounds fine by this biologist. The theory of evolution by natural selection doesn’t need to be protected from the battering of honest scientific inquiry – after all, that's what makes it a theory (noun, science) in the first place.

*In comments, coturnix quite rightly links us to the Panda's Thumb's response and warns us to think carefully before launching into dances of joy and hip hip hurrahs. So, in addition to the healthy dose of Kathy Miller's skepticism that is already in my article here, I've added the red asterisks to get readers down here and clicking over to the Panda's Thumb post for a reality check.

22 August 2007

Hello to Roger 'Darwinbeagle' Rowe...

the man behind the Darwinbeagle weblog has contacted us. He's doing us - The Interested In Darwin Community - a real favour by blogging Darwin's Beagle diary, posting each entry on the day it was written. Having started it, he's committed to finishing only when Beagle makes landfall. I've linked to a few of his posts, but how good to hear from him in the email flesh. The diary is also available at the remarkable Complete Works of Darwin Online site, and for regular updates on what's new at Darwin Online and his high-quality eclectic roundups of Darwinalia, point your bowsprit at the Dispersal of Darwin.

Hello Zooillogix

This new sciblogger on the block is worth bookmarking. The serious stuff, a piece on the Census of Marine Life and all the new goodies they've trawled up from the deeps. We hope to work with COML when the Beagle sets sail. Darwin was a pioneer in the field of plankton trawling and we aim to do the same but turn the science of metagenomics loose on our samples. He also tells us where Great Whites go for some squalous action when the sharky sap starts to rise.

21 August 2007

A, O, Oh way to go Ohio

Gooooooood morning, America! I am delighted today to link you to the announcement that Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio is planning a rip-roaring, ID-bashing celebration of Charles Darwin's legacy in 2008-9.

Events will include a "series of lectures by prominent researchers and other events to make clear the enduring soundness and profound impact of Darwin's concept." Oh yeah.

Case Western is collaborating with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to bring a diversity of speakers ranging from evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll, whose website has some very pretty pictures showing genes and evolution in action, to U.S. District Judge John Jones who rightly ruled in the famous 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania trial that teaching intelligent design in school was unconstitutional because intelligent design is fundamentally creationism, not science.

20 August 2007

Top five dead scientists: list 'em

asks James Randerson of the Guardian. This follows on from comedian Robin Ince's list who (in fasionable reverse order) suggested Tycho Brahe, Aristotle, Galileo, Feynman ('not enough bongo playing physicists')and top of the list Carl Sagan, who is reported to have said, "to make an apple pie from scratch you must first create the universe".

There are really only four spaces on the list because as Mr Randerson says, anyone who omits Darwin from the list will be asked outside. Cup of tea and cake on the replica Beagle for Mr Randerson.

15 August 2007

The Navy offers the Beagle Project

full, amazing, support and cooperation. This is fantastic news:

I have just learned of “The HMS Beagle Project” and as Defence and Naval Attaché to the Embassy of Chile- it gives me great pleasure to offer you my assistance, support and co-operation on behalf of the Chilean Navy to help you make the necessary arrangement to do this.
Through the Naval Mission in London I could liaise with our HQ in Chile should you need to access Chilean waters, logistic support or/and security clearance.
Please get in touch with my office if there is anything I could do to take this matter forward.

Yours sincerely...

Should we need access to Chilean waters? Captain Romero, yes please. The original Beagle sailed Chilean waters between 1834 and 1835, and at Concepcion Darwin reported on the catastrophic earthquake of February 20th 1835. Darwin's travels in Chile are extensively covered in the Voyage of the Beagle in chapters 12 (central Chile), 13 (Chiloe and the Chronos Islands), 14 (Chiloe and Concepcion, including the earthquake), 15 (Passage of the Cordillera, one of Darwin's impressive shore expeditions) and 16 (Northern Chile and Peru).

So a huge thank you to Chilean Navy for their offer of support for the world voyage of the replica of HMS Beagle.

The Beagle Project August newsletter is out..

and available to download: skinny 332 kb pdf here

hi res 3.5MB version here.

It's good. Download it, circulate it, pin it up, please use it to get people involved.

14 August 2007

A (NASA) picture is worth a thousand words

In the sort of squirm-inducing, unavoidably convincing way that only full colour photos can do, these aerial and satellite images of Australia's rabbit-proof fence show just how profoundly human activity can affect the climate--in this case, the local climate in Australia.

In both pictures dark colour indicates native vegetation, and light colour marks agricultural land. See the fluffy white clouds over the native area and the dearth of clouds over the agricultural area? That's not just a fluke: on the agricultural side of the fence, rainfall has dropped by 20% since the 1970s.

Full details (including this photo) can be found in the New York Times under the wonderful title "At Australia's Bunny Fence, Variable Cloudiness Prompts Climate Study".

For us here at the Beagle Project, this story provides yet another chance to highlight how images from space can inform, even inspire, new science profoundly relevant to human life on Earth.

12 August 2007

Students bodyswerve maths and science A levels

for easier subjects, according to this article in today's Observer. Quelle surprise.

What will best help Britain maintain competitiveness in the face a confident, productive China? A strong science and engineering sector fed by a stream of well-educated science and maths a-level students, that's what. Whatever governments have done for the last decade to encourage young people into science, it ain't working.

Reason six (or seven) why we need a replica HMS Beagle, sailing the world in Darwin's wake streaming good science and exciting exploration back to labs and classrooms.

Reasons here, here (stand back, I'm going to try science) and here. Probably a few more in archives, too.

10 August 2007

Beagle Project at Sci-foo

Thanks to Bora at Blog Around The Clock. The lucky man was at this year's Scifoo camp, held at the Googleplex where 200 assorted thinkers and doers in the field of science gather and, er, organize themselves after a fashion into an unconference. Bora mentioned the Beagle Project at a session discussing the Darwin 2009 celebrations, for which many thanks. Read his round up (with more links than a chain shop) here.

Update: the link to Bora's roundup really does go there now.

Google rhymes with Beagle. The Google Beagle. It works. How about it, chaps?

Whose Maritime Museum is building a replica HMS Beagle?

Portugal, as part of their Darwin's Evolution exhibition which will be held in the first half of 2009.

That's Portugal, not Britain.

Grab your popcorn and settle in

The proceedings from the second annual Metagenomics conference at UC San Diego are now freely available as streaming video. I recommend the first Keynote lecture, Marine Microbial Metagenomics, Discoveries and New Directions by UCSD's own Jed Fuhrman. And as a quick reminder of why Beagle Project fans should care, you can visit my previous post on metagenomics and the Beagle Project.

The Beagle Project: what's going' on?

Well, we're doing the spadework for the press release of the science collaboration I blogged about earlier in the week. It is big, it is clever and it is worth waiting for. We've assembled a list of patrons of the Project and some of us are travelling to London next week to meet a potential new recruit to the board who has access to major funds, the kind we need to crack on and start building. The newsletter is finalized, and an email about it should be in supporters' inboxes shortly.

Hello Pudgy Cusk Eel

I didn't know it existed either, but it does, it lives on the Mid Atlantic Ridge and has just made its blog debut on the ECOMAR blog.
ECOMAR is a £2 million UK project aimed at understanding how physical and biogeochemical factors influence the distributions and structure of deep-sea communities, focusing on the fauna of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at 4 sites in different environmental settings. The four sites are located on either side of the MAR and to the north and south of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone (CGFZ), which coincides with the Sub-Polar Front. Using these localities we will investigate the effects of topography and currents on the distribution of the fauna, and the effects of varying organic input in two different biogeochemical settings.
...and last night they had their trawls and cameras over the side and it's worth clicking over see what they found and make the pudgy cusk eel's acquiaintance.

We get comments:

Sisu asks: where does the pic on the blog come from? It's from John Chancellor's painting 'Beagle off the Galapagos', in colour here on our home page. John's widow Rita gave us permission to use the image to help us build a replica of the ship that John researched so deeply to get this degree of accuracy and dynamism, and as I never tire of saying, we are hugely grateful. His son Gordon provides an introduction to the pic here. I took a sliver and turned it into moody black and white for our website and blog headers. Sisu, show Goomp the pics on Gordon's page and ask if he's ever seen a sea so well painted?

Kevin Z at The Other 95% (his latest post is not arachnophobe safe: you know who you are) comes back with a pleasant comment and a great idea for a project aboard:
I'd love to sail on it and do a study of critters living on floating debris around the world. When I was at sea in 2003 in the east-central Pacific we picked up a floating coconut that harboured a polychaete worm, 2 different species of amphipod, a crab, barnacle, clam, and a snail. Like a mini ecosystem. Your around the world trip could be a very interesting chance to do a nice biogeographical study of floating debris microhabitats!
Indeed. It must have been like a school disco in that coconut: would the crab ask the polychaete worm to dance first?

And best comment pun of the day goes to Richard Carter FCD for his comment on Nunatak's Metagenomics for species discovery on the Beagle: "I never meta genome I didn't like."

9 August 2007

Great news!

A national maritime museum is building a replica HMS Beagle by way of celebrating Charles Darwin's bicentenary in 2009. Not a sailing replica, a static one that visitors that walk around and marvel at.

Great! That'll be in Britain, surely?
Britain where HMS Beagle was built, Britain in whose Royal Navy she served, Britain whose greatest scientist she carried round the world to scientific fame, Britain whose meteorological office her Captain established, Britain whose King she greeted in the coronation fleet review in 1820, Britain who furnished her crew which sailed her round the globe through four oceans, storms and revolution? Britain that great island, maritime, seafaring nation, proud of it's great sailors, explorers and scientists?

No, it's not Britain. It's not even an English speaking country.

For shame, Britain.

Links to Beagleblog RSS and Atom feeds

are in the sidebar. And here (RSS) and here (Atom).

Ta, Richard Carter.

The Other 95%

is a blog about invertebrates. It's good. The author has a cool name, shows us his tats, showcases his tunes for download "Spineless Songs - and swimming in at number one in the hit parade is Big Dead Squid" (A dirge, I hope, and no facetious mentions of calamari). He researches invertebrate communities around deep-sea hydrothermal vents for a living and when not doing that writes well and entertainingly on the subject of things without spines.

Science tattoos: Carl Zimmer from Scienceblog The Loom started this one running, asking has anyone got any sciency body art? Of course people have.

Come sailing with us on our replica Beagle and you'll be able get all sorts of impressive tattoos. An anchor if you do the Atlantic crossings, a swallow for every 5000 miles sailed, a full-rigged ship across your back if you sail around Cape Horn...sail with us and you'd earn your ink, not just buy it.

8 August 2007

Good luck all...

in about 10 minutes, one of the marvels of the modern age is about to happen: the space shuttle Endeavour will blast off, taking a truss for the International Space Station into orbit. The shuttle is named the small Whitby-built ship on which navigator, explorer and scientist James Cook circled the world. Here's a pic of a replica of her namesake sailing into Whitby harbour. That shuttle crew and the ground crew are embodying the motto Cook chose when he was honoured by the King: leave nothing unattempted. Pic © Peter McGrath

Oceanographers: not all benthophagics.

But some of them do taste seabed samples. Ik. Don't they know fish pooh down there? From the ECOMAR cruise to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge blog.

Coral reefs 'disappearing fast'.

Charles Darwin was a bit of a renaissance scientist: he didn't just discover evolution. Climbing plants, worms, the descent of man, orchids, the expression of emotions, insectivorous plants and barnacles were among the subjects that fell under his gaze. So, too did coral reefs. Had he been alive today he would be 198, and probably very glum to read that coral reefs are disappearing faster than had previously been thought.

Let's hope there are some living reefs left to visit when the replica Beagle sails back to Darwin's old haunts, to compare and contrast his observations 170 years on using the tools and techniques of modern science.

Martin Brummel

(self proclaimed horrible fan-boy of the Beagle Project) has been suffering for his science in Northern Canada. He's back in civilization now, and his blog posts are worth a read.

7 August 2007

Metagenomics for species discovery aboard the Beagle

Metagenomics, one of the two genome era tools that will be deployed aboard the replica Beagle, can help us discover not only new species, but even whole new genera.

Case in point: the recent discovery, reported in Science, of a bacteria named Candidatus Chloracidobacterium (Cab.) thermophilum in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park (aerial photo from Earth from Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand).

Not only is Cab. thermophilum a new species but it is also distinct enough from other relatives to warrant classification as the founding member of a new genus. In mammalian terms that would be like discovering a major new branch of great apes on the same hierarchical level as humans (genus name Homo), gorillas (genus name Gorilla), chimpanzees (genus name Pan) and orangutans (genus name Pongo).

The investigators collected mixed samples from microbial mats in three different Yellowstone hot springs. The resulting grab-bag of DNA was analysed and sorted by computer into the genomes of individual species. One of their most exciting discoveries was this uniquely light-harvesting (photosynthetic) species of the Acidobacteria phylum.

While plants are the best known photosynthetic organisms, bacteria actually account for half the photosynthesis taking place on Earth. But only five of the 25 major bacterial phyla were known to have members with this ability. This discovery in Yellowstone brings that number up to six.

“The microbial mats give the hot springs in Yellowstone their remarkable yellow, orange, red, brown and green colors,” says Don Bryant of Penn State University. Yellowstone’s hot springs “house a diversity of microorganisms, but many are difficult or impossible to grow in the lab. Metagenomics has given us a powerful new tool for finding these hidden organisms and exploring their physiology, metabolism, and ecology."

“This is an excellent example of how metagenic information reveals how little we know about life on Earth,” said Ronald Weiner, program director in NSF’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.

Metagenomics will be one of the central science projects on the new Beagle, promising discoveries of many new species, and maybe even new genera and families, on her repeat of the 1831-6 circumnavigation.

Thanks to Lockergnome of Tech News Watch for the tip off.

6 August 2007

Beagle Project and ???? collaboration about to be announced.

OK, the confirmation letter is in. The press release is being written. You will read about it here first - a big, exciting organization has agreed to work with us. It's a development that takes the Beagle Project from the realms of ordinarily exciting ocean voyaging with lots of science to the kind of mind-seizing, eye-widening stuff science communicators dream about.

If I happened to be involved in the public understanding of science, science education in government, or a commercial sponsor wanting to get in early, I'd think very seriously about contacting us.

Martin Haffner

is a Beagle Project supporter and donor, and has started a molecular biology blog. Pop over and say hi, or guten tag, because Martin also uses his blog to administer the occasional shoeing to German pseudoscientists and creationists in their own language.

Meanwhile, blog carnivals are all the rage, and Carnival of the Blue is all about the oceans. Here's the latest, and it's well worth a browse.

5 August 2007

Origin(al) reading

Over the the Friends of Charles Darwin weblog The Red Notebook, Richard Carter gives Janet Browne's book on the Origin of Species the thumbs up.

Meanwhile: '“I regard the current backlash against science as a betrayal of the Enlightenment.” He deplores the slide in science in British universities.' Richard Dawkins interviewed in The Times Online.

Meanwhile in history: 5th August 1832, HMS Beagle has sailed into Montevideo and the place is in a state of armed revolution, read it at the Darwinbeagle weblog. Captain Fitzroy is ashore, Charles Darwin aboard where the cannons are loaded and run out, the boarding nets raised to stop locals storming the boat in search of arms and ammunition. It's a reminder that Charles Darwin went through real dangers, discomfort and hardship during his five year circumnavigation. A young man from a wealthy family, he could have bailed, run for home. His armchair critics who have never bothered to instruct themselves in his writings nor the science of evolution, far less put themselves in any discomfort for the sake of furthering the lot of human knowledge would do well to remember it. They may also quieten themselves eating pages torn from Behe's Edge of Evolution (shredded here) (or Atlas of Creation, according to taste) and smash their keyboards into Scrabble sets on a convenient hard object. But that is optional.

Give another generation of young scientists a chance to get some excitement in their scientific education: donate, sponsor and help us build this replica HMS Beagle.

3 August 2007


First of all to Steinn at the eclectic blog The Dynamics of Cats and to Free Range Academy for wishing our blog move a fair wind.

And second to CJ and the team at Clustrmaps. We have a very spotty free Clustrmap at our old blog, and moving here we upgraded to the paid Clustrmaps+ service. Here's the the email from them in reply to mine asking if this new blog was covered by the paid service:
That blogspot one is indeed the one specified in your upgrade...but what the heck... I'm in a good mood, and you have a great project,
so I've upgraded both URLs

All the best,

-CJ on behalf of the ClustrMaps Team
CJ, many thanks: you and the team are welcome for tea and cake on the replica Beagle. We will even splice the mainbrace for you.