30 December 2009

The Beagle Project is back online

It's alive, UHLIIIIVE! The Beagle Project domain that is. Sorry for the week-long black-out. Service is now restored and our website and email are up and running again. *blots forehead with hankie*

The bad news is that all emails to addresses ending '@thebeagleproject.com' during the last week were bounced back. If you have tried to email one of us during the period 22-29 December, please do re-send now. Thanks for your patience.

27 December 2009

Domain is down/open thread

Our website is down, including all emails ending @thebeagleproject.com. We're working on it, but for now please communicate with us in one of the following ways:
  1. Leave a comment under this post, which will serve as an open thread for project communication until the domain is back up.
  2. If you're on twitter, send a mention or direct message to @beagleproject
  3. Email me here.
Year-end post coming soon...

178 years ago today

As opening lines to great adventure stories go, it's one of the best:

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.

Brings a lump to my throat every time I read it.

11 December 2009

'In a moment overthrown'

Darwin's first big theory wasn't evolution by natural selection, it was a mechanism for the formation of coral reefs and atolls. The story of Darwin and corals is beautifully narrated by David Dobbs in his book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which I'm nearly finished reading now and plan to review here later.

Today I'm writing to add our support to the global call for action to save coral reefs from extinction by climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and overfishing:

Coral reefs and climate change, a message for Copenhagen from Earth Touch on Vimeo.

Watching this I couldn't help recalling how, at the end of his Journal of Researches (a.k.a. The Voyage of the Beagle), Darwin wrote,
'Among the other most remarkable spectacles which we have beheld, may be ranked the stars of the southern hemisphere—the water-spout—the glacier leading its blue stream of ice in a bold precipice overhanging the sea—a lagoon island raised by the coral-forming polypi—an active volcano—and the overwhelming effects of a violent earthquake. The three latter phenomena, perhaps, possess for me a peculiar interest, from their intimate connexion with the geological structure of the world. The earthquake must however, be to every one a most impressive event : the earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the most beautiful and laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.'
That last thought is especially poignant now that we are seeing the most beautiful and laboured works of nature in a moment overthrown.... by us.

We'll need sailing vessels, Part II (repost)

Originally posted on 9 January, 2008.

In Part I of this post I wrote about an important but oft overlooked message to be carried by the new Beagle: that a return to sailboats as a viable form of transportation is an essential piece of the climate-saving puzzle.

Today, I stumbled upon this BBC video hilariously entitled Ship using 'sail' technology, with sail in quotes, just like that, as if the BBC thought its readers might not be sure what sails were for.

My laughter turned to cheers, however, when I watched the video, which reports that the first cargo ship to harness wind power in more than a century is going to sail across the Atlantic this year.

'The age of sail may not be past,' it begins. 'In the age of climate change, windpower is making a remarkable comeback.'

According to the video, the new merchant ship is equipped with something called a SkySail, a high-tech 160 square-metre kite that will deliver 20% savings in CO2 emissions and fuel costs, which is equivalent to $1600 US Dollars per day.

The video ends by echoing the hopes of SkySail's developers, that the SkySail's maiden voyage will 'herald a new age of sail'.

SkySail in action

9 December 2009

Why we need a new Beagle (reason 4,283)

Edward O. Wilson on a recent Guardian Science Extra podcast (quote begins at 11:27):

You couldn't duplicate Darwin today. We have lots of young men and women now with comparable dedication, but they can't develop the way that Darwin did. There is no equivalent opportunity like the voyage of the Beagle.

Not yet, Prof. Wilson.

Not yet.

We'll need sailing vessels (repost)

Originally posted on 9 April 2007.

"If we want to make it to the future, we'll need sailing vessels" writes Dmitry Orlov of Boston, Massachusetts in the second of a trio of can-do environmental citizenship stories from Orion Magazine's new department Making Other Arrangements.

By "make it to the future", Orlov means maintenance of a functional civilisation in an environmentally sustainable future. Sailboats will figure heavily, Orlov argues, and in doing so he reminds us that a 21st Century Beagle should fly the flag for more than just science.

"Sailors and their ships run on food and water and wind—all renewable" writes Orlov. "Sailboats can be made from renewable materials as well: wood, hemp, flax, and pitch ... the trends that will once again make sailing a viable form of transportation are already in place."

Always a rich source of segues, Orion this month offers up yet another Beagle aim. In "Leave No Child Inside" (for those who understandably tune out American politics, this is a play on George Bush's No Child Left Behind strategy that many argue leaves plenty of children behind), Richard Louv paints an achingly appealing picture of a future in which children and nature are reconnected as a central function of education.

"Such a future is embodied in the nature-themed schools that have begun sprouting up nationwide," writes Louv, "like the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center Preschool, where, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April 2006 'a 4-year-old can tell the difference between squirrel and rabbit tracks—even if he can’t yet read any of the writing on a map.'"

And so should be the Beagle: a floating nature-themed school that gets youngsters outside and fosters their native intelligence of nature amongst other virtues. And on these I'll give Orlov the last word: "The culture of sailing is rich, ancient, and largely intact. It is also a culture that fosters competence, fitness, self-reliance, and courage, which are all sadly missing from the world we see around us."

7 December 2009

The new Beagle won't just promote science-based action on climate change, she'll embody it

A Greenpeace vessel floats offshore to welcome flights arriving at Copenhagen airport (Kreutzmann Nanna/AP).

As anyone not locked in a closet knows, a certain climate change summit is taking place this week in Denmark. There's already lots being written and even more said about it, so we just want to add this one thing: sails, people.

Hopenhagen, they're calling it, and that's just what we're all doing: hoping it's successful. But at The Beagle Project we also believe that hope isn't enough. We all need to take action on climate change, not just look to politicians. And so I give you our climate change pledge:

The new Beagle will:
  • be a research platform to investigate climate change (and its inextricable link to biodiversity change)
  • carry the urgent message of the need for climate action to audiences literally around the world
  • celebrate her namesake's captain Robert Fitzroy who founded the science of weather forecasting (he coined the term 'forecast'), established the use of the then-new telegraph to transmit weather reports so that storm warning cones could be raised in ports saving countless lives and established the Met Office, today a leader in climate change science
  • embody the commitment to climate action by traveling mainly under the power of that greenest of green energy sources - wind
Be on the lookout for reposts this week on the contributions sailing vessels can make to solving the climate crisis.

24 November 2009

On Origin's anniversary, it's time for some legacy-thinking

150 years ago today John Murray published Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This is the last of three Darwin anniversaries spanning 18 months, a period of celebration we've been calling Darwin200 here in the UK.

For me, as both director of science for this here Beagle Project and also the science coordinator for the Natural History Museum's Darwin200 campaign, it's been pretty much all Darwin all the time for the entire time. I confess to having succumbed a little to Darwin fatigue – I don't get quite as excited as I used to at the sight of a First Edition of On the Origin of Species for example, and I worry that any Darwin-related projects or stories proposed for the next few years will suffer from unfair backlash ('Oh this is a Darwin project? Wasn't the anniversary in 2009?').

And this has got me thinking: what will be the legacy of these celebrations? What, if anything, have we done that will have a lasting effect on the academic and/or public consciousness? Some of the Darwin200 projects have involved permanent installations – Andrew Smith's young Darwin statue at Christ's College in Cambridge is a literally gleaming example – but many more have been of a more ephemeral sort: conferences, plays, musical performances, special exhibitions, etc. As good as these have been, they're over now.

One solution is to immediately embark on yet another commemoration, another 'Year of [insert scientist's name or scientific discipline here]'. Directly on the heels of Darwin200, many of that group's partners will be smoothly transitioning to the International Year of Biodiversity. But if I've learned one thing from Darwin200 it's that it will be over before we know it. It's time for some legacy-thinking. By that I mean creative thinking – and action to go with it – about how to capture and extend the momentum of these commemorations beyond their sell-by dates.

We believe that The Beagle Project, though indeed initiated during the build-up to 2009, will bear Darwin's legacy well into the future, without hinging on any special day, month, year or even decade. Our vision is a project that will generate and maintain enthusiasm for science and the natural world not only by commemorating the achievements of the past but by creating the opportunity for new adventures and the discoveries that will change our future.

18 November 2009

Saving Darwin's Muse: Update! With data!

Remember Darwin's mockingbirds? Last year I was all excited about getting to extract DNA from the specimens Darwin and Fitzroy collected on Floreana in Galápagos in 1835. Well the paper reporting the results of the DNA study will be published today in Royal Society's Biology Letters and it's already been covered by The Times, the BBC and Conservation Magazine's Journal Watch (so far... I will add more here if and when they appear). The Natural History Museum press release is here.

It's an exciting day, to see this project published, and I'm delighted about the coverage, not least about how it can highlight the bird's conservation status and efforts underway to protect its long-term survival.

The only thing about this that makes me a little bit uncomfortable is that these articles focus a lot on me, when, in fact, as I said in my first post on the topic, I am but a tiny player in a large, multi-layered research and conservation project. Particular mention must be made of Paquita Hoeck, a PhD student in Lukas Keller's research group at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich, who is first author on the paper and is doing a much larger genetic analysis of Galápagos mockingbirds which includes hundreds of specimens from Gardner-by-Floreana and Champion – both historic specimens and birds they captured live and sampled on site over the last few years. Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation are developing a conservation programme for Floreana, and the Bird Group at The Natural History Museum in Tring, where the mockingbird specimens are held, were instrumental in providing access to the specimens and dissecting the tissue samples.

So what did I do then? As the NHM's Darwin200 science coordinator I facilitated the inclusion of the 1835 specimens in the project, I helped write the paper, and in terms of the research itself I did DNA extractions and microsatellite amplification reactions on the NHM specimens in parallel with Paquita to ensure that the data generated in Zurich were indeed from the two historic specimens and not the result of contamination.

Update: the latest piece, in Conservation Magazine's Journal Watch, interviews Lukas Keller. Hurrah!

14 October 2009

Darwin and the Adventure: media linkfest

At long last, I have got a leg up on the rigging (right) and written the first of several blog posts recapping our recent trip to Brazil for our British Council funded science, education and outreach extravaganza called Darwin and the Adventure.

This post will archive all the known links to media, blog posts, images and video to come out of the project. As it's an archive, I may will update it from time to time with more links so if you notice anything missing (bloggers, don't be shy), please let me know in comments and I will add it.

To start off with here's the overview I wrote for our press release:

In September, 2009, two hundred years after Darwin's birth, 20 marine research scientists from around South America, the UK and the USA, representatives from The HMS Beagle Project and NASA, and 60 local schoolchildren will gather in Paraty [pronounced Par-a-CHEE] (right) on the Costa Verde (Green Coast) in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (source: Wikipedia) to:
  • Celebrate: During Charles Darwin's bicentenary year, the programme will promote the modern scientific legacy of his historic voyage aboard HMS Beagle.
  • Discuss: The British Council Darwin Now Network will convene for a one-day scientific workshop will be held to discuss the potential for modern science in a new age of sail. In particular, the discussions are meant to underpin a second more intensive scientific expedition using a new tall ship modeled on HMS Beagle for operation around the world in the path of the 1831-1836 voyage, including further research around Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius and South Africa.
  • Sail: Participants will undertake two half-day voyages to establish the feasibility of modern scientific techniques aboard a traditionally rigged tall ship, the Tocorimé (Spirit of Adventure).
  • Connect: Ship-to-space scientific and educational connections will be made with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as a demonstration project for the planned collaboration between the station and the new Beagle NASA and The HMS Beagle Project
  • Learn: Approximately 60 local schoolchildren will participate in educational activities around the programme, including the opportunity to speak directly to astronauts aboard the ISS.
  • Promote: Media involvement will be invited to promote Darwin's legacy, marine science and conservation, the history and future of science under sail, and the unique whole-earth scientific collaborations possible with the International Space Station.
So that was before... what about after? Here I give you the results of my exhaustive but admittedly amateur search for all of the content to come out of our 'party in Paraty' as we came to call it:

Mainstream media coverage:
TV Brasil
RioSulNet televisão
Terra Brasil
El Nacional
Tal Cual (pdf)
Duke University Press Release

Blog posts (English):
Deep Sea News 1
Deep Sea News 2
Deep Sea News 3
Deep Sea News 4
Deep Sea News 5
ISS Fan Club

Blog posts (Portuguese):
Instituto Sangari
Derrubando Barreiras
DC Una-SE Um Novo Tempo
Blog Carioca
Reporter Aventura
Mundo Eco
Ciencia Hoje


Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

[If the Flickr widget above doesn't work, click here.]


7 October 2009

Brazil round-up: coming soon

As some of you will know, we recently went to Brazil and, as some of you will wonder, this blog has been pretty quiet about it. Please rest assured that this is not because the whole trip wasn't covered in science, outreach and education-flavoured awesomesauce, but rather because I'm snowed under to an epic degree and still trying to process it all. I will have a full report for you soon, but until then here are a few things to keep you busy:
  • visit Deep Sea News where Kevin Zelnio has done a much more admirable job covering the event in a timely manner than I have
  • see our Flickr group for the event
  • watch me climb the Tocorime's rigging on YouTube

Mike Barratt landing in Kazakhstan on Sunday morning

NASA astronaut (and Beagle Project collaborator) Mike Barratt will land this weekend in Kazakhstan following seven busy months aboard the International Space Station, but he won't be grounded for long, as he's just been assigned to the final flight of the Space Shuttle, scheduled for the end of 2010!

I've had the great pleasure and honour of speaking to Mike several times by phone while he's been aboard the station and I can tell you that while he's looking forward to coming home and seeing his family, he will miss life on station, especially the views of Earth from up there, of which he never grows tired.

Watch a live on NASA TV:

October 9, Friday
  • 3 - 3:15 p.m. - Expedition 21/20 Change of Command Ceremony
October 10, Saturday
  • 5:30 p.m. - ISS Expedition 20/Spaceflight Participant Farewells and Hatch Closure (Farewells and Hatch Closure scheduled at 6 p.m.)
  • 8:45 p.m. - ISS Expedition 20/Spaceflight Participant Undocking from ISS (Undocking scheduled at 9:05 p.m.)
  • 11:15 p.m. - ISS Expedition 20/Spaceflight Participant Deorbit Burn and Landing in Kazakhstan (Deorbit burn scheduled at 11:36 p.m.; Landing scheduled at 12:28 a.m. Oct. 11)
(Eastern time)

Mike Atherton hits it out of the ground on The Origin.

An article in today's (London) Times looks at four writers' science epiphanies. It's a good read and instructive to see how the scientific scales dropped from formerly indifferent eyes.

Cricketer Mike Atherton's contribution particularly made me cheer, even before coffee. Atherton was a superb batsman who had the misfortune to captain the England cricket team when we were a particularly indifferent, cross-eyed malco-ordinated outfit regularly pummeled by all comers. But on science he times it beautifully off the bat and cover drives it for a four...
In our house, David Attenborough is a living god and it is to the great man that I defer most of my children’s questions through his wonderful documentaries. It is hard to think that there is a better living broadcaster: expertise, lightly worn, combined with unbridled, childlike enthusiasm and a lovely, warm voice makes him the perfect conduit between ignorance and scientific knowledge.

His recent programme, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Lifewas epic television. It made me realise that you cannot go through life having not read the most important scientific book ever, and so On the Origin of Species is lying by my bedside.
No hang on, he slogs it brutally a out of the ground for a 6:
After all, you wouldn’t want your son growing up as a loony creationist, would you?
Damn right Mike.

(For our American readers who may not get the cricket references: hitting a '4' means that the batsman hits the ball to the boundary but it bounces at least once on the way. The cover-drive is a particularly elegant batting shot. Hitting a 6 means that the batsman really gives it some humpty and wallops the ball clean over the boundary rope.)

6 October 2009

Beagle logbooks to provide climate data...

the logbooks of HMS Beagle are among those being used in retrospective climate studies according to a report on the BBC News website. The hourly records of weather observations made by the ship's senior officers may give researchers clues as to past climate.

The project will also digitize the logbooks, providing Darwin and Beagle scholars with another rich vein of information: the logbooks will be on the National Archives website next year.

This is a bit of kicker, since it's something I'd hoped we'd be able to do as part of the Beagle Project, but anything that puts more Beagle information in the public domain and brings Captain FitzRoy further to public attention is welcome here.

The homepage for the CORRAL Project is here.

The Times: Captain Cook's weather logs help scientists predict climate changes (Beagle gets a passing mention.)

7 September 2009

Science role models at the British Science Festival ...via Second Life

Tonight at 6pm I will be a panelist in a discussion on science role models and inspiring the next generation of scientists. In true-to-science form, the event, hosted by the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), will feature an evidence-based approach: introspection about how we ourselves got interested in science will be our platform for exploring how to inspire others.

The event takes place at the British Science Festival in Guildford, Surrey, but the other panelists and I will be participating via Second Life from a BIS office in Westminster (and you can too--sign up here).

I've dabbled in Second Life before: I gave a presentation on Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle for the launch of Nature's Second Life exhibit Notes from the Voyage (screen capture at right shows a virtual HMS Beagle and my avatar, K2 Snowpaw), and I used Second Life to attend Science Online London 2009 when I was stuck at home with the 'flu. So I'm looking forward to having another go.

I'm also looking forward to seeing my co-panelist and fellow UK Science Tweetup regular the great Dr. Andrew Maynard of Twitter, Mashable and 2020Science fame.

Andrew is way ahead of me in terms of online preparation and build-up; he's written a fantastic blog post in advance of the event called "Hooked on science: ten things that inspired me to become a scientist" ...so fantastic in fact that I've nominated it for inclusison in Open Laboratory 2009.

Though I haven't written down my own thoughts (yet!), I have at least marshalled them and am looking forward to sharing them with the audiences in Guildford and Second Life and exploring how we can better enthuse people about science!

6 September 2009

Charles Darwin to be on the Fourth Plinth!

The Fourth Plinth, on the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square in London, was built in 1841 but was never topped with a statue (insufficient funds, apparently). In 1999, the Royal Society of Arts started the Fourth Plinth Project, which commissioned a succession of works by contemporary artists. More recently, the Greater London Authority has become responsible for the plinth and has started a new series of exhibitions.

From 6 July - 14 October 2009 Antony Gormley's One & Other occupies the plinth; for a hundred consecutive days, 2,400 selected members of the public will each spend one hour atop the plinth doing whatever they feel like doing, and it will all be streamed live. According to Gormley, the point is to 'elevate of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art'.

Some of us Darwin groupies (stand up and be counted, peeps!) were kind of hoping that Charles Darwin's statue - perhaps even this one - might be selected for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth during 2009 to mark the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Alas, our dream was crushed by Gormley's selection.

Or was it?

In an event the British Humanist Association has called the Ascent of Darwin ...onto the Plinth, today, in fact, RIGHT NOW, Charles Darwin will occupy Gormley's plinth for one hour. He will answer questions posted to the twitter account @QuestionDarwin.

4 September 2009

Beards 'n' Bowlers: a flashmob proposal

First, a bit o' backstory. The UK Science Tweetup is a quasi-regular meeting of scientists and sci-curious tweeps (twitter + peeps, in case you were wondering) in London, usually on a weekday evening at a pub. The tweetups are organised and followed-up using a hashtag; anyone interested in the tweetups just need bookmark and/or subscribe to a twitter search for #ukscitweetup. All welcome.

Anyways, a fellow #ukscitweetup regular @ayasawada suggested a science flashmob and then @rpg7twit, @steinsky and I jumped on the idea and agreed to discuss it a bit more at the next #ukscitweetup (which I think is happening during and after the Lord Drayson-Dr. Goldacre debate at the Royal Institution on the 16th of September).

I've given it some occasional thought, wondering if we should do some kind of cool citizen-science project like a London bioblitz, but flashmob style, but nothing had really crystallised until...

I saw @QuestionDarwin's very cute Darwin emoticon complete with bowler hat and beard and then...

BOOM into my brain came 'Beards 'n' Bowlers', a flashmob to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species on November 24th, 1859.

The idea is that at an appointed time of day (perhaps 18:59?) on Tuesday, the 24th of November, in a large, public space* with plenty of unsuspecting commuters mixed in with all of us in-the-know flashmobbers, we will suddenly don bowler hats and/or fake beards, open our copies of On the Origin of Species (1st Ed.) and, at some signal, and perhaps following along with someone with a loudspeaker, we will recite, in unison, the last few sentences:
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.

After which, everyone removes their props and disperses.

After the initial giggling came a bit more thinking, and a problem started to bother me: where are people going to get bowler hats? Will not having an easy source of bowler hats and/or beards be a deterrent? So I did some googling (as one does) and was delighted to find Bring Back Bowler Hats, the blog/website of Bowler Hat Day 2009. I kid you not: on Friday 13th February, 2009, half a million City workers (okay maybe not quite all of them) went to work in bowler hats. The event was even covered in the Financial Times.

As I guess you might expect of City-folk, they solved the whence-bowler-hats problem in fashionable and profitable style. They convinced not one but three bowler-hat suppliers to donate 10% of their bowler hat sales to their selected charity, SOS Children's Villages. Their suppliers were http://www.hatsandthat.com/ , for fancy dress felt http://www.madworldfancydress.com/ on Tabernacle Street in the City, or plain old plastic www.onlinejokeshop.co.uk (though we frown on plastic here at the Beagle Project).

So I've sent an email to the address posted on Bring Back Bowler Hats asking them if they want to collaborate with The Beagle Project Blog in this special bowler hat flashmob honouring Charles Darwin and benefitting two charities: The HMS Beagle Project and the Galapagos Conservation Trust. I have yet to receive a reply...

*It can't be the Natural History Museum as it closes its doors at 18:00 - perhaps Charing Cross Station as that's where Darwin would have alighted when he traveled from London from his home in Downe, Kent?

2 September 2009

Send a Grrl to Antarctica

Earlier this summer, we endorsed Beagle Project supporter and science blogger GrrlScientist in a competition to become the official blogger on a trip to Antarctica.

With one month to go, Grrl is in third place, but climbing fast. If you are lacking the motivation to spend the ten seconds or so it takes to vote for Grrl, please consider that in second place is Donny Osmond's son, who is receiving voting support from his father (that world-renowned authority on science communication) and from the Mormons (that world-renowned authority on science communication). If Don wins, we can expect the following gems from Antarctica (excerpted from his contest entry):

Every moment of every breath is a gift give to us, which we should embrace. Live life in crescendo. … Life is a journey, not a destination. Those who embrace this mantra find happiness and adventure in every facet of life.

So there's your reason to vote against Don Osmond, but why should you vote for Grrl? Grrl's been blogging longer than the other contestants - and the thing is, she's good. She's demonstrated for years that she represents and promotes our values (science, conservation, environmentalism) through clear, knowledgeable writing. Her mystery bird series is a reader favourite - and, my friends, it is in need of some penguins!

Follow this link to vote for Grrl.

And remember, one vote per email address (and who has just one?).

28 August 2009

Ah, how I love the smell of a fresh PhD in the morning

If you happen to hear the sound of wild applause coming from the direction of London, that'd be me, giving the newly minted PhD, one Dr. Peter Etnoyer, friend, Beagle Project supporter and blogpeep, a standing ovation.

Peter just finished his doctorate at Harte Research Institute, which he said was his 'best job ever'. Peter's skipping straight over the post-doc (wow!) and starting a 'real job' next month with JHT, Inc. working 'in support a deep-sea coral research program at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research in Charleston, SC'. The job apparently includes advising on a deep-sea aquarium, which will be a good outlet for Peter's talent for public engagement, since blogging is apparently 'not compatible' with his new gig.

Best of luck in your new job, Peter! You do good by the oceans, and for that we thank you.

25 August 2009

The Beagle Project goes to Brazil

Get ready, readers, blog peeps, space tweeps, and all our fans out there because The HMS Beagle Project is about to get its feet wet!

Regular readers may remember my announcement in March that we had been funded by the British Council Darwin Now Network to hold a scientific workshop and 'science under sail' feasibility study in Paraty, Brazil.

I am now in the position to divulge some detail:
When: September 20th-23rd, 2009

Where: Paraty, Brazil (see map below) and aboard the Brazilian Tall Ship Tocorimé (right)

What: A scientific workshop on the potential of doing modern oceanographic and biological research aboard a sailing ship such as on the voyages planned for the new Beagle and a feasibility study consisting of two day science cruises aboard the Tocorimé. The day-cruises will be coordinated with overhead passes of the International Space Station, where astronaut Mike Barratt (a.k.a. Cosmopithecus) will be photographing our position as a test-run for our future planned scientific collaborations. Hopefully, Mike will also be speaking with us live via ham radio, when, in addition to testing our ship-to-space connections he will be answering the questions of local school children in Paraty!


  • ~20 marine scientists from around South America
  • from the HMS Beagle Trust: Me! ...and Beagle Project co-founder David Lort-Phillips
  • from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton: Dr. Simon Boxall, oceanographer and collaborator on the brilliant Cape Farewell project (Note: Dr. David Billett, Co-Chair Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems Group at NOCS cannot join us in Paraty but he deserves a big mention as he is the Principal Investigator on this project and has done an enormous amount of work on the science and logistical side)
  • from tall ship Tocorimé: Markus Lehman and Adriana Perusin
  • from NASA: (alas, Dr. Susan Runco, Earth Remote Sensing Scientist of NASA's Image Science and Analysis Group can't join us - her replacement has yet to be named)
  • ...and last but most certainly not least, Kevin Zelnio of Deep Sea News has kindly agreed to serve as our research technician!

View Larger Map

Formal press release coming soon but I wanted you all to be the first to know!

21 August 2009

The new Beagle: a flagship for science in a new age of sail

Note: this is a longer version of my recent Letter to the Editor published early online in Zoologica Scripta (doi:10.1111/j.1463-6409.2009.00403.x). As long as I tell you that the 'definitive version' is available here, I am entitled by Wiley-Blackwell 'to use all or part of the article, without revision or modification, in personal compilations or other publications of [my] own work'. To comply with 'all or part...without revision or modification', I quote whole blocks of the article without revision below in italics. -KJ

The new Beagle: a flagship for science in a new age of sail

SIR – Your Special Issue, ‘In Linnaeus' Wake: 300 Years of Marine Discovery’ (
Zoologica Scripta 38: Suppl. 1, February 2009) encompassed both the history of maritime scientific exploration and its enduring legacies. Impressive marine and terrestrial specimen hauls from three centuries of scientific voyaging, largely under sail, underpinned major scientific advances not least Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

‘Science in the age of sail’ came to a gradual end between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, as sails were first combined with and ultimately replaced by coal-fired steam and then diesel engines—an irony considering that the historic specimens collected on such voyages would ultimately be seen as useful to establish pre-industrial baselines for climate change research.

While a changing source of energy for maritime transport signaled the end of the 'sail' in 'science under sail', the 'science' also suffered setbacks. After a brief but intensive period of specimen collecting on diesel powered expeditions (such as the Discovery expeditions), ocean voyages for scientific discovery under all modes of propulsion declined as research funding was diverted to post-war explorations of both outer space and also the inner space of the cell.

Contrary to public perception, expedition-based science did not decline because the task of species discovery was completed: though 1.8 million species have been discovered and named this figure is estimated to represent only 1-10% of the true total. Moreover, marine organisms are under-represented; the diversity of marine life is still largely unknown to science, especially in the deep sea, of which a smaller percentage has been explored than of the surface of the moon. Exacerbating this dearth of marine knowledge are the increasing threats of climate change and habitat loss, coupled with a decline of taxonomic expertise and resources called the ‘taxonomic impediment’.

The need for a new age of discovery science

There is international recognition that the time is ripe for a reinvigoration of expeditionary science, with a particular emphasis on marine environments. The Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans, (POGO) was created in 1999 “by directors and leaders of major oceanographic institutions around the world to promote global oceanography, particularly the implementation of an international and integrated global ocean observing system” (www.ocean-partners.org). POGO makes a case for extensive and sustained oceanic observation, research and modeling – a case which is echoed in a themed issue of Nature (450; 2007) on “Earth Monitoring” and the accompanying online special, “Earth Observation” (http://tinyurl.com/mvp9bg), which calls for the ‘patching together' of a complete worldview that unites Earth observations from space with ground- and ocean-based exploration and monitoring.

Today, wine; tomorrow, science

Since the aim of a new era of discovery and monitoring is to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change and habitat loss on biodiversity and other complex Earth systems, there is both a real and a symbolic benefit to conducting these explorations a way that minimises environmental damage.

Sail-power is already making a comeback in the cargo industry. After nearly a hundred years of fossil fuel-driven shipping, the first transatlantic voyage to be (once again) augmented by high-tech sail power has just been successfully completed; the so-called SkySail delivered an average fuel savings of 20% on the journey. The use of traditional sailing ships for the movement of goods is also being revived, as marked by the first shipment of Bordeaux wine to Dublin aboard the 170-foot brig Belem in February of this year.

That's very well for wine, but what of science? Though a few private sailing vessels have already been used for modern scientific exploration, such as J. Craig Venter’s Sorcerer II and the Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita, a symbolic sailing ship to mark the beginning of science in a new age of sail has not yet materialised.

The new Beagle

The HMS Beagle Project (www.thebeagleproject.com) is raising funds to rebuild HMS Beagle to serve as a charismatic flagship for science in a new age of sail. After she is built, the new Beagle will circle the world in Darwin's wake, making similar landfalls. She is not intended to be a museum ship; she will be equipped with modern laboratories and equipment to support a series of researcher-led marine and terrestrial projects as well as continuous collections of samples for DNA barcoding (www.barcoding.si.edu) and metagenomics (Nature Reviews Genetics 6, 805; 2005).

As formally established in a signed International Space Act Agreement with NASA, scientists aboard the new Beagle will collaborate with astronauts aboard the International Space Station on biodiversity and climate change research. Ocean surface water samples for biological assessment will be time-stamped for correlation with images taken from space. These images will enable the visible characteristics of plankton blooms and other biotic phenomena as seen from space to be ground-truthed by real measurements from the ship.

Charles Darwin improvised the first plankton collecting apparatus aboard HMS Beagle in 1832 which he wrote “is a bag four feet deep, made of bunting, & attached to semicircular bow this by lines is kept upright, & dragged behind the vessel. — this evening it brought up a mass of small animals, & tomorrow I look forward to a greater harvest” and, the next day, “I am quite tired having worked all day at the produce of my net. — The number of animals that the net collects is very great & fully explains the manner so many animals of a large size live so far from land. — Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. — It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose.”

Today, the source of Darwin's wonder is under threat by anthropogenic change. An essential part of diminishing this threat is increasing public awareness and inspiring mitigating action from personal to global scales. Thus the new Beagle’s public engagement and formal learning capacities are equally if not more important than her science capacity.

The attraction of a famous tall ship – even a replica of one – is exemplified by the fact that 300,000 people visited the replica of the Swedish Ship Götheborg (right, towering above yours truly) during her voyage to China, and 2 million visited the exhibition site, with a total media coverage value of €300 million.

The original Götheborg was one of many ships that bore Carl Linnaeus' so-called 'disciples' around the world on their seminal voyages of discovery, and the physicality of climbing aboard the replica Götheborg brings those journeys to life in a way that no written history can.

Just as Linnaeus and his apostles had a double mission to spread the ‘gospel’ of the new botanical principles and collect empirical data so the new Beagle will have a double mission of multi-disciplinary science and inspiring public engagement with – and action to protect – global biodiversity and climate stability.

20 August 2009

Taueret: wearable art in support of the Beagle Project

We are delighted to be able to add another name to our list of artists who support the Beagle Project with a portion of their proceeds.

Taueret (blog, twitter) makes 'a range of handmade jewelry and other wearable art that celebrates nature, science and rationality' which she sells in her Etsy shop, The Long Legged Fly ('wear your smart on your sleeve').

Tauret has kindly offered to donate 100% of the proceeds from the sale of anything in The Long Legged Fly's Darwinia category, such as the lovely tree-of-life pendant at right (the pendants are also available as brooches), to the HMS Beagle Project!

A very hearty Beagle Project thank-you to Taueret and the other artists in support of The HMS Beagle Project, Claudia Myatt, Diana Sudyka and Glendon Mellow.

16 August 2009

Bella Gaia

A view of the whole Earth from space is one of those innumerable, invaluable gifts that the human race has given to itself as a result of the space program.

The first such view, Astronaut Bill Anders' 1968 photograph now called Earthrise (right), has been called 'the most influential environmental photograph ever taken'. At the time, however, it's impact was unanticipated. The expectation that such an image might be captured wasn't even on NASA's agenda; Anders famously joked that the photograph wasn't scheduled.

But now the view has become ubiquitous, and as a result I suppose it's easy to become hardened against its aesthetic and symbolic power. A new project called Bella Gaia by Kenji Williams is helping to recapture the romance - and the message - of Earthrise. Here's a clip:

From this, it seems to me that Bella Gaia is a kind of modern-day Earthrise. Using up-to-the-minute technology, it evokes awe at the same time as instilling a message of oneness and fragility.

We hope that the Beagle Project - espeically through our collaboration with NASA - will make a significant contribution to whole-earth science tied with public engagement.

h/t @bethbeck

3 August 2009

Ahoy there!

Two little shout-outs that need shouting out:
  1. Jennifer Rohn is organising a get-together of science bloggers for the 21st of August, the night before Science Online London.
  2. As I've blogged about DNA barcoding here before, and as it's something we hope to do on the new Beagle, readers might be interested to know that I've written a blog post on Data Not Shown entitled 'Gene angst: finding a DNA barcode for plants'.

27 July 2009

Cosmopithecus (guest post by astronaut Mike Barratt)

The following is a guest post by NASA astronaut and Beagle Project collaborator Mike Barratt, written aboard the International Space Station where Mike is about half-way through a six-month long-duration flight.

by Mike Barratt

As a flight surgeon and specialist in space medicine, I have awaited my own space flight experience with great anticipation. I have spent years practicing the craft of space medicine, studying the world’s literature and debriefing crewmembers following their flights. The prominent topics on my mind have been the specific physiologic problems associated with living in weightlessness – bone and muscle loss from disuse atrophy, cardiovascular deconditioning, neurovestibular reprogramming, etc. I have often said that humans essentially become extraterrestrials in space due to the global multi-system changes that define adaptation to weightlessness. Many physical and laboratory norms shift, and medical problems may present differently against this backdrop. But after 100 days on orbit, what has struck me most is the constellation of fundamental changes in behaviour and motion associated with deep adaptation to weightlessness. Learning to live and work here prompts a metamorphosis of sorts in habits, body awareness, motion control, and hygiene. This is in concert with a remote, expeditionary lifestyle with somewhat sparse provisions, which rather reminds me of being at sea. In some ways we degenerate as compared to what people expect. Let me paint a picture.

The neutral body posture assumed in weightlessness represents the sum resting flexion force of the major postural muscles. Put simply, you assume a posture somewhere between standing and fetal. You have to make a conscious effort to ‘stand straight’, and it is actually uncomfortable to be restrained out of this position for long periods. Shrug your shoulders and let them fall a little less than half-way, then keep them there. That’s us, a posture your mother would never approve of. As for your feet, as my Air Force buddies often remind their Army counterparts, we don’t walk; we fly. The calluses on the soles of your feet slough, part of the process we call the mid-mission molt, giving the word tenderfoot a new meaning after return to earth. Inflight, you go around in stocking feet or barefoot (my preference), and the prehensile nature of the toes rises to the surface. Your feet are used to stabilize the body, allowing you to fix yourself into position to optimize your work envelope, and toe holds are a key part of this. Calluses develop on the upper surface of the feet due to contact with foot restraints, particularly the dorsal aspect of the 1st metatarsal-phalangeal joint.

In weightlessness, every structural surface is used for work and stowage. The concept of walls and ceiling is a very gravocentric construct which we don’t have up here; we change this orientation frequently, sometimes appearing to be hanging from surfaces in the camera views. It has been surprisingly easy and natural to develop the three dimensional spatial awareness to work and move through the ISS, changing orientations quickly and frequently in the course of normal work. And finally, opposite our terrestrial counterparts, up here we locomote with our hands and arms, carrying big loads with our feet and legs.

Add a few behavioural changes that abound up here – letting hair grow, playing with food, and singing primitive chants – and I give you Cosmopithecus. The physiological changes I mentioned are certainly prominent but reside at a deeper level, most below a threshold of appearance or detection without medical imaging, biochemical analysis, or provocative physiologic testing. On the surface that extraterrestrial I have been describing for years is a hunched over, fast flying, spatially versatile creature that functions naturally in 3 dimensions. The pace of work here is quite brisk, and as you might guess the pressure to execute the plan without errors is high. The picture painted is the sum of several forces that result in an efficient worker in the weightless environment. And if there is any doubt, it is tremendous fun up here!

Photo: NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, Expedition 20 flight engineer, holds storage containers with his legs while floating freely in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.
NASA photo ISS020-E-021255.

19 July 2009

Beagle Project Podcast episode 2: Messages from Above

The Beagle Project now has a a dedicated website for its podcasts. We've decided to call it The Beagle Channel (geddit?).

The really good news is that you can now subscribe to the podcast using your favourite podcatcher, or you can listen to the podcasts online by visiting the podcast website.

This afternoon, the Beagle Project's Director of Science, Dr Karen James, and I recorded a brand-spanking-new podcast episode, which I have named 'Messages from Above', for reasons which will become apparent if you listen to it.

Listen now:

Download | Embeddable Player

11 July 2009

Stokes's Journal

What remains of Pringle Stokes's HMS Beagle journal went under the hammer last month. The Brisbane Times had the story.

Pringle Stokes was the ill-fated first captain of the Beagle, who took his own life off the coast of Patagonia in 1828. Unfortunately for poor Stokes, his pistol-aim was far from true, and he took 12 days to die a painful death.

This all happened during the first Beagle voyage. It was Stokes's suicide, combined with a fear of a hereditary suicidal trait, which convinced Robert FitzRoy that he should take a gentleman companion with him when he captained Beagle on her second voyage. As we all know, Charles Darwin was selected for the role.

So, putting it rather simplistically, no Stokes suicide; no On the Origin of Species.

As a Brit, I have to say it irks me somewhat that Stokes's journal - an important artefact of British maritime history - has ended up in Australia (where, admittedly, it was rediscovered in 1977, having been taken there by Stokes's shipmate, Philip Parker King). Having said that, as a Brit, I probably shouldn't complain too much about important historical artefacts' being housed in other countries.

7 July 2009

The Cambridge Darwin Festival

This week I'm at the Cambridge Darwin Festival - probably the biggest single Darwin event in this big Darwin year - where I'm wearing both my NHM Darwin200 science coordinator and Beagle Project hats. There are lots of juicy talks and sessions planned, plus evening events and a fringe festival. In addition to all of this I'm determined to take in Endless Forms at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Anthony Smith's bronze of the young Darwin.

I will be tweeting the festival here: @kejames ...and you can see a stream of all festival tweets here: #DarwinFest.

5 July 2009

Go South young Grrl!

As you may have noticed, the Beagle Project's tag-line is "bringing the adventure of science to life". Now, with your support, Beagle Project supporter and science blogger GrrlScientist will be doing just that in February 2010. Grrl is in a competition to become the official blogger on a trip to Antarctica and to get there she needs our votes! There is one vote per valid email address (and if you're like me you've got more than one... *cough*).

As a proponent of adventure blogging it's great to hear that this journey is going to be blogged and I cannot think of a better person to bring this personal and scientific adventure to life for all of us than GrrlScientist. She is a brilliant and consistent blogger, an excellent photographer, and is endorsed by The Digital Cuttlefish.

Follow this link to vote for GrrlScientist.

1 July 2009

Coming soon: Beagle Project website re-boot and FAQ

Thanks to Tony in comments (and others by email) for your interest in updates and information about The Beagle Project. As a result of personal, professional and other issues (not least preparing for our upcoming British Council-funded feasibility study in Brazil), we're in a bit of a communication lull right now but we are acutely aware that our fans and followers are wanting news and that our website is out of date.

We are planning to relaunch our website soon with the help of a generous offer of support by Sanphire Design, and this will include a Frequently Asked Questions page to answer the ...well ...the most frequently asked questions, but to briefly answer Tony's question: the construction of the new Beagle has not yet begun; we are still fundraising, and we are as committed as ever to ushering in a new age of science under sail aboard the new Beagle!

28 June 2009

'An aweful & solemn sound'

It wasn't all plain sailing on Darwin and FitzRoy's Beagle voyage. The ship frequently sailed into unknown territory. Her crew were on their own, many days from help.

One-hundred and seventy-five years ago today, Beagle's crew buried one of their colleagues at sea. Darwin recorded the event in his Beagle diary:

On the 27th [June, 1834] the purser of the Beagle, Mr Rowlett expired; he had been for some time gradually sinking under a complication of diseases; the fatal termination of which were only a little hastened by the bad weather of the Southern countries. Mr Rowlett was in his 38th year; the oldest officer on board; he had been on the former voyage in the Adventure; & was in consequence an old friend to many in this ship; by whom & everyone else he was warmly respected. — On the following day the funeral service was read on the quarter-deck, & his body lowered into the sea; it is an aweful & solemn sound, that splash of the waters over the body of an old ship-mate.

It seems incredible that the oldest officer on board Beagle was just 37 years old. Great responsibility was placed on young shoulders in those days. I suppose it still is.

175 years after his untimely death, I sit at my computer screen and raise a glass to poor George Rowlett (1797–1834).

18 June 2009

Twelve days

...is far, far too much time between blog posts, for which we apologise, dear readers and blogpeeps.

My fellow Beagle bloggers will, no doubt, have their own very good excuses; as for me, though, you can direct your ire squarely in the direction of twitter. I've been bit by the twitter bug, big time, swept off my feet in a frenzied flurry of blue feathers.

But this twelve days thing is a wake up call. I've gone too far to the microblogging extreme and it's time to seek balance before I forget how to write paragraphs. So, with hand on heart, I promise to resist the 140-character siren song long enough every week to post something substantive here.

...uh, well, except for next week when I'll be away on a technology-free holiday in the mountains - you know, those big, pointy, rocky things you sometimes see when you go outside in certain parts of the world.

7 June 2009

"My Dearest Catherine" (Part III)

Simmons Buntin has kindly agreed to let us reproduce his series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. They are published in his book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress. We've already posted the first and second; here is the third:

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Simmons B. Buntin

9 October, 1835
My Dearest Catherine,

We have sailed from the anarchy
of Lima and Peru
for the drier anarchy of the Galapagos,
where volcanic craters burn
without lava—
their regular forms jutting
from the archipelago
like the great iron-foundries
at Staffordshire.
And though there are no plumes,
the slight vapour blends
with low sky so that once again
the world is gray.

It is gray in the mutinied captain’s
skull found among salt-green
succulents, in the oppressive
heat of absent wind, and
in dusky hues of equatorial finches.
Perhaps it is my mood which is truly
gray, as Fitzroy turns
madder with the days
and crewmen yearn for British seas.

Yet we are here, among these
curious rocks, and surely there is hope
in their exploration.

25 October, 1835
What joy in the cloudless skies,
in these barren isles! Though I have found
few species, it is their rarity
which excites. On Albemarle,
the largest island, I have tossed
a remarkable lizard by tail into the sea.
And always he returns!
On Chatham Island
I have balanced unsteadily
upon the giant back of a tortoise grazing
the sweet red fruit of cactus!
And of thirteen species
of finch, where I was drowning
in the dullness of feather,
I now sail on the varied waves
of their beaks!
Come sail with me
Catherine—take the wind west
to these juvenile isles and dance
among the gray feathers
that make up the brilliance of life.
If I appear too drunk to write
with steady hand and level mind
it is because I am too
undernourished not to go on.
Though sailors laugh
as I sketch the remarkable shapes
flourished since just one finch
lit upon Indefatigable’s jagged
beach, I am aware only of life’s
ability to persevere,
and evolve.

But in man’s own wilderness,
void of cottages and cobblestone
and into the saline deck
of navigator’s ship, perseverance
usurps evolution, discarding it quite
entirely. No, you should not dance here.
Dare say that I should not, either—
but for these birds and vines
and islands. And the faint memory
of a distant home.

In loving passage,

31 May 2009

Three things Big Ben and the Beagle have in common:

1. They're both British icons.

2. The the clock that faithfully triggers Big Ben's oh-so-recognisable chime (for "Big Ben" is actually the name of the bell, not the clock or the tower), has been ticking for 150 years today, and On the Origin of Species - the book that got its start in Darwin's notebooks aboard the Beagle - was published 150 years ago this year.

3. The man who built the clock, Edward Dent, also made a chronometer for HMS Beagle.

The Beagle had a whopping 22 chronometers, which enabled, as Fitzroy put it in his narrative of the 1831-1836 voyage, "a connected chain of meridian distances around the globe, the first that has ever been completed, or even attempted, by means of chronometers alone." This and other survey-related undertakings were the Beagle's chief purpose - not, as hindsight might tempt us to believe, to carry a young Charles Darwin around the world.

Bow of the sprit to @friendsofdarwin.

"My Dearest Catherine" (Part II)

Simmons Buntin has kindly agreed to let us reproduce his series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. They are published in his book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress. The first one is here, and today we post the second:

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Simmons B. Buntin

Letter No. 2
9 June, 1834
My Dearest Catherine,

Our course lays due south, a new passage
through the Straight
of Magellan, and I cannot fathom
what strange currents lurk
beneath the iron clouds. Once
I captured the alien
view of Southern glaciers:
inverted domes rimmed with purest
white (oh, how the stars must be jealous!);
but Catherine, it is their blue
which holds me.
Fitzroy remarked
these are the frozen flames of Vulcan,
though I questioned the atmosphere
and found other evidence: ice
crystals gathering and refracting
the light. A simple combination
of muted sky and sea.

Yet I fear this voyage
is leaving me too scientific—it is not
some chemical reaction or
ice cones permeated by tropospheric rays.
There is more; and
I can only say, when I see these glaciers,
I am reminded of mother’s eyes.

Beneath heavy skies,
however, we are threatened
by harrowing winds and black
fingers of basalt.
These are unexplored waters,
so I am braced by the cartography, the geology—
yet I must fear
a wooden hull’s limitations.

28 July, 1834
We have anchored
(both our wind-tattered sails
and our restless feet) at the chief
seaport of Chile, the city
whose fragrances recall the intricate
tropical gardens of St. Cruz in Teneriffe.
And if the dense green
forests of Brasil cause your eyes
to ache, then Aconcaqua
and the long chain of Andes
will leave you blind!

I am reminded again
of the numerous species
which make up the grandeur of life:
I have seen, in the high
hills of Patagonia,
a bird larger in wingspan
than a British skiff’s sails, and more
buoyant. I have seen on the uneven
playas of Tierra del Fuego a dumb and
flightless bird six hands higher than my brow.
And I have seen, weaving
the icy Antarctic waters, a slick
bird whose wings
are more efficient
than the finest pair of fins. And I have found
a striking likeness in their thin bones,
in dry feathers...
Every evening I ask the Creator,
How long are the days of the Genesis,
oh Lord? Yet I cannot discuss
such a heresy with Fitzroy, who nearly abandons me
upon a lifeless rock in the Pacific;
but with you, I can leave
these questions, and more...

In loving passage,

25 May 2009

A new CafePress shop in support of The HMS Beagle Project

Sometimes I think, "that'd make a cool t-shirt". What can I say, I'm geeky like that. So to quench my creative thirst and make some more dough for The HMS Beagle Trust (UK Charity No. 1126192), I've created a new CafePress shop - Periphera - to complement The Beagle Project Shop. Here's the goods:

The Darwinius design is inspired by raw indignation and John Wilkins' blog post
and is
available on t-shirts and a mug

Front (left) and back (right) of t-shirts commemorating the first tweet from space.

24 May 2009

"My Dearest Catherine" (Part I)

Simmons Buntin has kindly agreed to let us reproduce his series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. They are published in his book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress. Here is the first:

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Simmons B. Buntin

21 January, 1832

My Dearest Catherine,

Passage to the Cape Verde Islands,
a minor stopover for the Beagle,
but a major one for myself.
Oh, if you could have seen my face—
the color of stitched linen at Downs
(where last I have seen either you or Susan).
How can I explain my misery at that time?
The tormenting waves, the incessant rocking,
always rising and collapsing
as my stomach did the same.
Fitzroy is a fine man,
as he would look in on me while
I lay idle at sick bay;
But Wickham, his first mate,
knew no friendship for me.
My quarters fare little better—
I share the poop cabin,
and have my drawers; the two others
(officers both) have lockers.

16 March, 1832

Finally it is Spring—
it seems as if even these vast seas
know the changes. They are richer,
though I knew well before we reached the mainland
we were there. A single leaf, a barkless twig,
a clod of saturated grass, still living—all signals.
No beauty exists in all the world
such as in these tropical lands.
In all my days of studying,
under Henslow or even Sir Adam Sedgwick,
I was never prepared for the absolute
numbers and grand diversity of life—
of species. I have been able to collect,
though I must have killed
hundreds of insects, small mammals, and birds.
(Do not worry, Catherine, I know how
you love life. These species are too numerous
for my sampling to harm.)
One butterfly must be named for you—
its wings are the majesty's blue blazoned
with scarlet, violet, and even silver.
How much it reminds me of your favorite brooch.
These lands have too many more to describe,
the brilliantly colored parrots, the gay
primates swinging on twisted branches...
Father must accuse me
of lizard-catching now, as well.

Yet in all of this beauty, one thing
remains disturbing. Here
on Bahia, on the Northeastern coast
of Brasil—chiseled into the delirious
greenness of rainforest—
man holds man captive.
Nothing plays enchanting in blood
mixing with sweat on the whip-cuts
of the negroes. Nothing enchanting
in the deep brown skin
chained with iron coils.
You must see the difference.
I collect a few specimens for knowledge,
for all—it is my passion, no man sees harm.
But these men, vulgar and cruel,
they act as if they transcend the Creator,
though He who created such solitudes
surely must not agree.

We depart for the South
in but a short while. I cannot say
I will be home soon—the Beagle
shelters my bed now, much as
the tropical canopy is secure in the mist.
You cannot know
unless you see these forests
and breathe this air...

With loving passage,

Originally published New Mexico Humanities Review.