31 December 2008

Darwin on the BBC

The BBC are marking Darwin's bicentenary and the Origin's one-and-a-half centenary with a Darwin Season 2009:
To mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species', the BBC is airing a season of landmark TV and radio programmes.

Simple yet profound, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most influential scientific ideas ever conceived. Even today, its conclusions and implications impact religion, politics, economics and art as well as our understanding of the natural world.

David Attenborough, Andrew Marr, Armand Leroi and Melyvn Bragg are among the key names who will explore Darwin's extraordinary life and work.
Radio 4 kicks the season off with In Our Time presented by Melvin Bragg:
9.00am Monday 5 January - Thursday 9 January 2009

Melvyn Bragg looks back over Charles Darwin’s life and asks why Darwin’s writing remains such a profound influence on our understanding of the natural world. The series describes Darwin's education at Edinburgh and Cambridge. It discusses how the voyage on the Beagle influenced the longer-term development of Darwin’s ideas about evolution and goes on to grapple with what Darwin meant by 'evolution by natural selection'. The series concludes with Darwin's later years. Melvyn reviews his final publications and stresses the importance of his enormous scientific and personal correspondence.

As Melvyn develops his own ideas about Darwin, he talks to academics and scientists, all of whom have specialist knowledge of Darwin’s life and work. These include biographer James Moore, biologist Steve Jones, paleobiologist David Norman, librarians Judith Magee and Colin Higgins, garden curator Nick Biddle, zoologist Jenny Clack and botanists Johannes Vogel and Sandy Knapp. Melvyn also talks to Jim Secord and Alison Pearn, both from the Darwin Correspondence Project.

29 December 2008

And they're off!

A great deal will be written about Darwin over the next year, and The Guardian pitches in today telling us that he must not be hijacked by New Atheists. Much wil be written over the next year, but here at the Beagle Project we intend to provide a legacy to the 2009 year of activities. A new Beagle sailing the world will keep the talk, the writing, the ideas and enthusiasm alive long after the words have been forgotten, so hot the donate buttons, or contact us to discuss sponsoring.

Anyone listening to BBC Radio 4 over Christmas would have done well to listen to "With Great Pleasure at Christmas" in which bestselling author and creator of Discworld Terry Pratchett introduced to a live audience some of his favourite books and poetry. The quote with which he closed the show? The final paragraph of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

27 December 2008

177 Years Ago Today

After having been twice driven back by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty's ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831.

As opening lines to great adventure stories go, it's one of the best. One-hundred and seventy-seven years ago today, Charles Darwin set sail on a journey which would forever change the way in which we see our world.

The world needs more HMS Beagles.

18 December 2008

A very important holiday annoucement from Chas Darwin

We've been neglecting for far too long our felt friend Mr. Chas Darwin, handmade by Miss Prism of the capacious handbag and auctioned by same in support of The Beagle Project. We aim to rectify this ghastly omission beginning today, starting with this very important holiday announcement from Mr. Darwin from his new home in Canada:

Shop here or even better yet donate to the project in honour of a friend or loved one who is a fan Darwin and/or the Beagle. Here is just a smattering of our wares with original artwork very kindly provided by John Chancellor (courtesy Gordon Chancellor), Diana Sudyka and Claudia Myatt:

16 December 2008

Captain Fitzroy....

Alfred Russel Wallace hath a Rottweiler. Darwin obviously had a Beagle but the Beagle had a captain, Robert Fitzroy.

Fitzroy was 26 when he was given orders to take Beagle around the world and the fact that Darwin arrived in Falmouth in once piece with notebooks full of Good Things is in no small part due to Fitzroy's powers of command and seamanship. Some of the conditions he sailed through would make most modern sailors wet their oilskins from the inside.
2009 is Darwin's year, but as a sailor I don't want this great sailor forgotten in the welter of Darwiniana. Sailors have him to thank for pioneering weather forecasting using barometric pressure and he became the founding head of what has become the Meteorological Office. I suspect he saved a lot of seafarer's lives.

A Fitzroy page was on the to-do list, but an email from science author John Gribben has prompted me to get on with it. It will be posted soon.

Darwin's Sacred Cause...

Jim Moore is a friend of the Beagle Project and his much-read biography of Darwin (written with Adrian Desmond) is always within arm's reach here at the Beagle Project's Yorkshire outpost. (Beside-the-desk bookshelf, right, Darwin's biog in good company). The Darwin duo are back with another book and this one looks a corker. From Penguin's blurb:
"This book, by Darwin's most celebrated modern biographers, gives a completely new explanation of why he came to his shattering theories about human origins. Until now, Desmond and Moore argue, the source of the moral fire which gives such intensity and urgency to Darwin's ideas has gone unnoticed. By examining minutely Darwin's manuscripts and correspondence (published and unpublished) and covert notebooks, where many of the clues lie, they show that the key to unlocking the mystery of how such an ostensibly conservative man could hold views which his contemporaries considered both radical and bestial, lay in his utter detestation of slavery. Darwin's Sacred Cause will be one of the major contributions to the worldwide Darwin anniversary celebrations in 2009."
Going on previous Moore and Desmond reading it'll be good. The link has an interview with the authors and the book is out on 29th January.

13 December 2008

World Wide Wallace

Wallace's Rottweiler aka George Beccalloni tells me that The Wallace Fund is producing ~20 of these lovely 55 cm diameter plaques commemorating Alfred Russel Wallace's discovery (independent of Darwin) of evolution by natural selection.

The plaques are replicas of an original at the Natural History Museum in London featuring a profile of Wallace made while he was still alive.

The Wallace Fund plans is to donate the plaques to "a wide variety of organisations worldwide which have an interest in Wallace" (see list below).

Most exciting of all, The Wallace Fund will be giving one plaque away "to a public organisation somewhere in the world which has an especial interest in Wallace's life and work".

For more information about the plaque, how to apply for the free plaque and about Alfred Russel Wallace in general, please visit The Alfred Russel Wallace Website.

Organisations to receive Wallace plaques:



Subsidised plaques will be presented to:

Way more detail at The Alfred Russel Wallace Website.

7 December 2008

Emma Darwin's recipe book "revived and illustrated"

I'm a big fan of celebrating the humanity of our science heroes, as it helps to dampen the unfortunate tendency towards hero worship exhibited by people who otherwise count themselves rationalists.

Don't get me wrong; trumpeting the contributions of great scientists to our civilasation* civilisation from the rooftops is absolutely appropriate. What I don't like is when this crosses into the absurd and we do things like go into paroxysms of religious veneration over their artefacts ('Oooo, Newton's fingernail clippings! Squeeee!!!') that would make their owners blush if not grab us by the shoulders and tell us to knock it off already with our genuflecting.

Don't get me wrong (part 2); these artefacts can be really good for bringing their owners' humanity home to us in a visceral way (as I recently experienced in the NHM'S Darwin exhibition which is chock full of Darwin's personal belongings), and they also serve a very important purpose in historical scholarship. Let's just not get silly about it, 'kay?

In the case of Darwin, this is especially important because when people treat his name or image as somehow sacred for its own sake, it's not only inappropriate (see Thomas Henry Huxley's views on the matter here), but it underscores one of the creationists' favourite lines, 'Darwinism is a religion'. Sure, the Onion recently used Darwinism to parody the absurdity of worshipping religious relics but I am pretty sure I also detected a hint of self-parody there.

Putting our science heroes on too high a pedestal also reinforces the harmful idea that 'we' (mere mortals) can't hope to attain such intellectual greatness as someone like Darwin. It would be terrible to put the Darwins of tomorrow off their science by making them think they have absolutely no hope of ever measuring up.

As such, accounts of Darwin's youth, his faults and foibles, his personal relationships, his illnesses and especially the routines of daily life are most welcome. And so, as a prime example of the latter, I give you Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book: Revived and Illustrated with a preface by acclaimed Darwin biographer Janet Browne ~

...which seems to me like it might make a pretty good stocking stuffer for those culinary-minded Darwin worshippers fans out there.

*how embarrassing (thanks, Richard)

3 December 2008

Darwin's first night on the Beagle

One-hundred and seventy-seven years ago tonight, Charles Darwin spent his first night aboard HMS Beagle as she lay at anchor in Barnet Pool, Plymouth. The following morning, he recorded the experience in his new diary:

I am writing this for the first time on board, it is now about one oclock & I intend sleeping in my hammock. — I did so last night & experienced a most ludicrous difficulty in getting into it; my great fault of jockeyship was in trying to put my legs in first. The hammock being suspended, I thus only succeded in pushing [it] away without making any progress in inserting my own body. — The correct method is to sit accurately in centre of bed, then give yourself a dexterous twist & your head & feet come into their respective places.— After a little time I daresay I shall, like others, find it very comfortable. — I have spent the day partly on board & partly with my brother: in the evening, Cap King & son, Stokes, my brother & myself dined with Cap FitzRoy. —

In the morning the ship rolled a good deal, but I did not feel uncomfortable; this gives me great hopes of escaping sea sickness. — I find others trust in the same weak support. — May we not be confounded. — It is very pleasant talking with officer on Watch at night — every thing is so quiet & still, nothing interrupts the silence but the half hour bells. — I will now go & wish Stuart (officer on duty) good night & then for practising my skill in vaulting into my hammock. —

His concerns about sea sickness turned out very well founded.

Russians imagine Darwin

Tip of the bowler hat to Adrian Thysse at Evolving Complexity for bringing our attention to a new exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery called "Dreams of Science: The Life of Charles Darwin in the Russian Imagination".

It's only on through 16 Jan 2009 and it seems worth a visit not least for the chance to view, up close, what appear to be some disturbingly brooding depictions of scenes from Darwin's life (there are low res thumbnails in a pdf you can download from the website, a selection of which I've copied and pasted at the bottom of this post) as well as various other 18th and 19th century sceintists who influenced Darwin.

The paintings are on loan from the collection of the State Darwin Museum in Moscow; who knew that existed? I sure didn't, and neither did Adrian. The exerpt that Adrian gives us from the museum's website includes this interesting tidbit: 'One can literally say that Russia became a second fatherland for the Darwinism.'
*cue creationist quote-mining*
...as well as this one: 'In 1907 the State Darwin Museum (SDM) was established in Moscow on the initiative of a young Russian scientist, A.F. Kots. In that time this museum became the first museum of natural history in the world.' Uh, what? Well, I don't know exactly which natural history museum was the first in the world, but I do know the one I work at in London opened its doors in 1881 (1753 if you don't require it to be housed in its own distinct building to be called a natural history museum).

Despite this little gaffe on their website, their paintings are most certainly worth seeing while they're in the UK. For more coverage of the exhibition, please visit Evolving Complexity and the Birmingham Post.

Darwin and his sister riding on North Wales (1948)
V Yevstafiev
Pastel on paper 30x39cm

Darwin discovering a prehistoric fossil skull (1920)
M Yezuchevskii (1880-1928)
Pastel on cardboard 42x53cm

Darwin on the Beagle (1926)
M Yezuchevskii (1880-1928)
Pastel on paper 85x60cm

Darwin collecting sea creatures (1948)
V Yevstafiev
Pastel on paper 40x26cm

2 December 2008

Young naturalist discovers new species on epic voyage of discovery

You'd be forgiven for thinking the title of this post refers to Charles Darwin, this being a blog about HMS Beagle and all, but the 'young naturalist' is in this case Peter Etnoyer, a doctoral fellow at Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and one of three bloggers at Deep Sea News.

And 'the voyage of discovery' began not on the ocean's surface aboard HMS Beagle in 1831 but 1200 metres (3/4 of a mile) under the ocean's surface in the Alvin submersible in 2002.

And the 'new species discovered' is not a rhea, an extinct giant ground sloth or a mockingbird, but the huge, hauntingly elegant deep sea coral pictured at right, featured on msnbc and in an evocative YouTube video.

But the best coverage of all comes straight from the 'young naturalist' himself, who describes his discovery in detail on Deep Sea News.

And just in case you didn't catch my use of the adjective 'huge' above, listen up: this thing is 132 cm tall. If you were to stand on the seabed next to it (not that you could without your chest imploding, it being so deep) it'd come up to about your shoulder.

How can something so big have escaped our notice, you might wonder? Well the truth is that we have identified probably only 1-10% of all the multicellular species out there, and a large number of those species yet to be discovered are in the deep sea. As Peter says, 'the fact that this bamboo coral is relatively common, but new to science, tells you how little we know about the deep sea.'

The era of discovery isn't over, it's only just begun ...that is, if we can stop the bottom trawlers from indiscriminately mowing them down before we get there.

Earl's Court boatshow roundup and thanks...

first of all to James Brook for offering us show space for free and to Simon Keynes for his loan of the model HMS Beagle which attracted so much interest to our stand (to the Natural History Museum, too for being such good sports about letting it go mid-exhibition). As luck would have it we were across the aisle from the model's manufacturer Premier Ship Models who were an entetaining and informative bunch to be around. Kos of Kos Pictures was great neighbour too, showing the kind of marine photography that makes you want to smash your own camera, buying us tea at critical moments and for a couple of great contacts. To those of you who love the Patrick O'Brian books, Geoff Hunt the artist responsible for their superb covers was a joy to meet while he was selling and signing at the Art Marine stand. Thanks too to Anna for early show fort-holding. Science director Karen was due at the weekend but was laid low by London winter lurgi.

Perry and I pressed a lot of material into the hands of passersby and talked ourselves hoarse to those who stopped. Everyone who listened to what we plan to do was interested, and were excited either by the science (that got more interest that I'd expected at a non-science event) or by the shameful neglect of our naval heritage that we hope the Beagle will be a small part in putting right. Thanks to the boatshow media interviewed us (right, SailTV asking the questions).

A lot of parents and kids aged 8 and above went very boogly eyed at the idea of a new Beagle sailing the world and asked how they might get their kids aboard either in science or sail training berths. Are you listening Mr Balls and Lord Drayson? This stuff inspired and excited people. Then drop in the NASA space/sailing/science connection and people walked away with minds blown.

Thanks too to those who dropped a few pounds into the collection jar and took away a card with the website on and promised to keep an interested eye on our activities. When the new Beagle sails into Plymouth, up the Thames to her birthplace at Woolwich and into the Galapagos you'll be able to think that a bit her is there because of your donation.

1 December 2008

To the person who left the comment about Radio NZ

I accidentally clicked 'Reject' when I meant to click 'Publish'! So sorry... I blame coffee on an empty stomach for a twitchy trackpad finger. Please re-post and I'll do the right thing this time, promise.