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.

22 May 2009

It's never too late in the week for sex

It's sex week at Deep Sea News! I know, I know, the week's almost over, but that just means there's even more good sea sex to read about than if I had posted this on Monday. "We are very excited for this theme week," wrote Beagle Project supporter and Deep Sea News contributor Kevin Zelnio in a recent email. "We have put a lot of time and effort into it," he continued. I'll bet they have. Now get on over there and read about underwater sex ...all in the name of science of course.

Space and ocean exploration win!

Those of you who follow me on twitter will know I've been just a teeny tiny bit obsessed by the space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope scheduled to land tomorrow in Florida after an uber-successful mission. This fixation is part of my steadily building addiction to interest in NASA's doings ever since Mike Barratt emailed me almost exactly two years ago to suggest a NASA-Beagle Project collaboration (now codified by an International Space Act Agreement).

I've been watching as much of the live and recorded mission video* as life and work allow, and have come across some fantastic moments, which I've been tweeting. But there's one video in particular that's worth a nice fleshy blog treatment simply because it is absolutely chock-full of win:

(Source: NASA TV as archived at Space-Multimedia)

My personal highlights are:

1:10 - 'Why should I care about Hubble?'

ABC's Charlie Gibson asks Commander Scott Altman how he would answer someone who asked him to give a brief answer to the question above. Altman's answer included this: "Hubble, as a scientific instrument, takes incredible scientific observations that are cutting-edge, rewriting the textbooks, but at the same time bringing galaxies that are billions of light-years away into our own homes and hearts for us to look at and marvel at the beauty of this universe."

4:22 - Ingenuity, teamwork and perseverance

In response to Gibson's question about the now infamous sticky bolt, Mike Massimino (@Astro_Mike) says, "I remember coming back toward the airlock to fetch some tools because we couldn't get that bolt to go, and I was feelin' pretty sad about what was happening and concerned if we would be able to do the repair. And I remember looking up to the window ... of the shuttle and I saw my buddy Drew Feustel ... and he was just giving me thumbs-up and smiles and telling me - no one could hear but I could read his lips - "We're gonna be okay. We're gonna get it done."

7:30 - Questions from schoolchildren & twitterers

Megan McArthur and Drew Feustel answer schoolkids' questions about what it's like in space. You get the feeling that they're not ever going to forget the day they had a phone call with astronauts. Then the reporter asks a question that had been submitted via twitter. More questions from California science students at 18:24.

10:58 - Advice to rookie spacewalkers (and everyone)

A CBS reporter asks veteran Hubble spacewalker John Grunsfeld what was the most important advice he gave to the first-time spacewalkers. He said the most important advice is, "Don't hurry, manage frustration, and don't get crushed by the robotic arm." That's great advice for all of us ...well except maybe for the robotic arm, which isn't a particularly common workplace hazard for most of us.

16:52 - Oceanographer-turned-astronaut Megan McArthur on Earth's oceans

NBC News Washington notes that Megan has a doctorate in oceanography and asks her for her thoughts on the view from 350 miles up. She says, "It's a beautiful view up here ... it's breathtaking to look out at the world and see the oceans, and really so much of our planet is covered by oceans and it's a good reminder that we have so much at home on our own planet to explore and that exploration is ongoing. At my own university, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography - that's really where a flavor for exploration took hold and I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to be up here in a different mode of exploration, helping to carry on the exploration of our universe." Yep, a real pale blue dot moment.

21:05 - The economic benefits of the space program

Jimmy in Toronto asks why, during this economic turmoil, should the American taxpayer continue to fund the space program? John Grunsfeld replies with an impressive list of some of the direct economic benefits of the space program including energy technologies, national competitiveness in high technology, inspiration to kids to study math and science ("you'd be hard-pressed to find a K-12 classroom that doesn't have a Hubble image in it"), medical technologies, software, cancer detection. Then he finishes it off by pointing out that "for every dollar we put into NASA, we get many dollars back into our economy". Grunsfeld: 1, tea-bagger: 0.

Scott, John, Drew, Mass, Megan, Mike and Greg, you've done us proud, yet again. Have a safe journey home.

*Live video on NASA TV (schedule here), and for recorded content there's NASA's YouTube channel and also the excellent Space-Multimedia download site, both of which get most of the NASA TV content up within 24 hours. Some of the YouTube videos are abridged for length but usually the Space-Multimedia site serves up the full enchilada.

17 May 2009

We get email ...from orbit!

After we sent our birthday video greeting to Mike Barratt who celebrated his 50th aboard the International Space Station in April, I sent him this email via his colleague Susan Runco at Johnson Space Center in Houston:
Dear Mike

I'll be brief as I know you've got just a few things going on up there!

1. I hope you received and found time to watch our video birthday card. An amateur job we know, but heartfelt.

2. What great luck that the Dayton Daily News happened to ask you about the Beagle Project in your news conference on the 15th - the mention of our project in space has sparked quite a buzz down here in Beagledom!

3. We've got funding from the British Council for a research workshop + feasibility study in Brazil this autumn. It will include a series of day-cruises aboard the tall ship Tocorime to pilot science equipment, workflows, etc. We haven't set a date yet as I'm hoping we can plan this to coincide with ISS passes & your own availability. So you may get to do some Beagle Project science yourself after all! I'll discuss this in much more detail with your colleagues on the ground of course, but wanted you to know about it.

4. My home phone was unexpectedly disconnected last week as a result of being in between service providers. Hope I didn't miss a call from space! It should be back up and running as of tonight. Just to reiterate my contact details: [snip]

My warmest wishes to you, Gennady and Koichi for continued good health, enjoyment and success!

Here was his reply:
Terrific, many thanks. I received really nice birthday videos from Karen and Peter.

Actually glad some time has gone by before the Beagle targets, so that I am a little better with the whole CEO thing. There is definitely some skill to acquire.

Will be talking; having a great time up here, in spite of the age!


What's this about 'Beagle targets', you ask?

In addition to upgrading the ISS and doing lots of science experiments, astronauts aboard the ISS also do a lot of Earth Observation. So, again via Sue Runco, we've sent up a list of 'targets' from the 1831-1836 voyage of HMS Beagle so that if and when the ISS passes over those points and Mike is in the position to photograph them, he can. This is all groundwork for our collaboration - formalised by an International Space Act Agreement - to correlate ISS imagery and ocean surface water samples taken from aboard the new Beagle.

Think this sounds exciting? Why not help us realise the new Beagle by donating to our build fund or buying something from our shop?

16 May 2009

Royal Society Beagle podcast

The Royal Society has just published its latest podcast: Marine Archaeology and 'Hunting the Beagle' in which maritime historian Dr Robert Prescott talks about his mission to locate the final resting place of HMS Beagle.

Podcast URL (MP3, 56.4 MB): http://royalsociety.org/podcast/audio/Beagle.mp3

13 May 2009

Beagle Campaign opponents: ocean awareness FAIL

Earlier this week, The Beagle Project endorsed The Beagle Campaign, a band of Royal Geographical Society fellows who seek 'the reactivation of the Royal Geographical Society's multidisciplinary research projects to greatly advance geographical science and knowledge.'

With the vote on the campaign's resolution less than a week away, the campaigners are ...well, campaigning and the RGS is urging its fellows to vote 'no'. Opinions are flying right and left in the press and online.

We've already explained in our endorsement why we support the campaign, but, since then, several wrong-headed statements have come out of the mouths and pens of the nay-sayers and they need some shouting down:

And so, to Christopher Ondaatjeo who said, "When the RGS was formed there was a need for exploration to places in Africa and so on; that need is not really there now."

...and to Max Davidson, who wrote, "However the vote goes at the special general meeting, perhaps the biggest problem facing the RGS is the shrinking world it inhabits: the great mountains have been scaled, the big rivers tamed. The expeditions that attract publicity today tend to be stunts rather than scientific research."

...and to Michael McCarthey who wrote, "Exploration is geography's past, and a very glamorous past it was, dangerous and romantic. Yet by the end of the Second World War, certainly by the 1960s, most of the globe had been discovered, if not mapped in detail; there was no more North-west Passage to be searched for."

...I give you this short video:

David Gallo explains how we've only explored 3% of the ocean, and the surprising discovery that the deep sea may contain more biological diversity and density than a tropical rainforest (thanks to Graham Steel for reminding me about this video)

In other words, there is absolutely more exploring to be done especially - but not exclusively - in the oceans. In its executive summary "The Legendary Ocean - The Unexplored Frontier" the U.S. Department of Commerce (Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere: Office of the Chief Scientist, NOAA) makes this statement:
"The ocean remains as one of Earth’s last unexplored frontiers. It has stirred our imaginations over the millenia and has led to the discovery of new of new lands, immense deposits and reservoirs of resources, and startling scientific findings...[snip]...In spite of the development of new technologies, comparatively little of the ocean has been studied...[snip]...As exciting and enlightening as ocean discoveries have been, they will pale in comparison to future discoveries.”
Deep sea scientist Craig McClain told me in an email that by his calculations based on the amounts of sampling he and collaborators have done with each of the different sampling devices (sleds, cores, ROV, submersibles, etc.), "we have sampled probably much less than 1% and probably closer to 0.5% an area roughly the size of Alaska".

And it's not just the oceans. Only 1-10% of the estimated number of multicellular species on Earth are known to science and if you added in unicellular organisms that number would be down to a tiny fraction of a percent. These organisms will both interact with and respond to a changing climate, having a profound affect on our own species' future.

11 May 2009

The Beagle Project endorses The Beagle Campaign

Last week Beagle Project co-founder David Lort-Phillips and I sent a rare email shot, in which we announced our endorsement of The Beagle Campaign "for the reactivation of the Royal Geographical Society's multidisciplinary research projects to greatly advance geographical science and knowledge":
Dear friends and supporters of The HMS Beagle Project,

We would like to call to your attention a like-minded movement of Royal Geographical Society fellows called the Beagle Campaign, which seeks a reactivation of the Society's multidisciplinary research projects to greatly advance geographical science and knowledge.


This initiative shares with our own project more than just our historic namesake; it also embodies central elements of our own mission and values, in particular, a commitment to bold, expeditionary science aligned with inspirational public engagement programming. The Beagle Campaign is working hard to gather support in advance of the Society's SGM on 18th May. Whether you are a Fellow of the RGS or an interested member of the general public, we invite you to learn about the campaign via the link above and, if you feel compelled as we do, register your support on their website.

If you happen to be a Fellow of the RGS, we urge you to attend the SGM and vote with us in support of the Beagle Campaign's resolution, which calls upon the Society to once again mount its own multidisciplinary research projects for the advancement of geographical science and knowledge.

With thanks for your continued interest in the HMS Beagle Project,

Karen James PhD FLS, DIrector for Science
David Lort-Phillips FRGS, Co-Founder
The HMS Beagle Project
Bringing the adventure of science to life
The vote is now one week away and the campaign is getting more and more press, including:
  • The Beagle Campaign public launch in the Financial Times
  • Country Life: Bring back expeditions (PDF)
  • Country Life: Has the RGS lost its way? (PDF)
  • Observer Article by Dr. John Hemming, former Director of RGS
  • A mini-debate on this morning's Radio4 Today programme featuring explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison and the Earl of Selborne, former president of the RGS

7 May 2009

Darwin: A Graphic Biography

by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne
B.C.D.P. Bristol 2009
FREE (info here, or go to the Small Press Expo where 250 copies will be given away)
Preview on Flickr

In autumn 2007 I stumbled across a blurb on the then-nascent Darwin200 website announcing that a graphic biography about Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle would be published in 2009 and distributed free of charge.

I loved this idea, especially its potential to interest a new audience in Darwin's adventures, both physical and intellectual. But I was troubled by the proposed cover illustration (right), which prompted me to write Simon Gurr an open letter complaining that "when Darwin met his first marine iguana on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 he was only 26 years old. Your Darwin looks more like this photo taken at age 45."

I needn't have worried. The free paperback is a fast-paced, funny and remarkably accurate* romp through Darwin's life and scientific contributions, with plenty of attention paid to the young Darwin, in particular his voyage on HMS Beagle.

The ups, downs and near-misses of Darwin's youth are portrayed honestly and without foreshadowing of his later fame, making it easy to forget our certainty that our hero will become ...well, our hero. This is a key point that I hope will get through to the book's younger readers: that Darwin wasn't somehow predestined to greatness. He was curious, patient and meticulous. He persevered.

'Charles had trouble persuading his father that sailing around the world for a few years was a useful way of spending big chunks of the Darwin fortune.' Source: Darwin: A Graphic Biography preview on Flickr.

Gurr and Byrne are similarly successful in their explanations of evolutionary theory before, during and after Darwin's life, which provide an essential context for any portrayal of Darwin's contribution to science. The story is 'presented' by a television crew of primates and this allows for a certain amount of basic Q&A without coming across as didactic.

Despite my growing numbness to the torrent of Darwiniana that shows no sign of abating as the anniversary year nears its mid-point, reading this book was a real pleasure, which was doubled by the prospect of the book being picked up by readers who might not be particularly disposed to crack Desmond and Moore's or Browne's tomes. Readers like these:

'The Lord Mayor of Bristol, pupils of New Oak Primary School, and the Lady Mayoress with copies of The Lost World and Darwin: A Graphic Biography at Bristol Zoo.' Source: Darwin: A Graphic Biography preview on Flickr.

So what about the cover? In the event, the authors (or perhaps the publishers?) decided not to make Darwin younger on the cover, but rather to replace the iguana with an orang-utan (Jenny perhaps?), whom Darwin would have seen face to face at London Zoo during his bald but still beardless phase. Not young Darwin, but accurate at least, and as I hope I've indicated above, not in the least indicative that Gurr and Byrne think of Darwin as a "stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce".

*insofar as a humble geneticist with a special interest in Darwin can say

Please forgive us dear readers

...for this uncharacteristic lull in posting frequency. There's a lot going on in our various little corners of the Beagleverse, but you can all rest assured we are still under full sail when it comes to rebuilding the little ship that changed the world!

A post coming shortly on the merits of and things we have in common with the aptly named Beagle Campaign but until then you might enjoy this pictorial placeholder:

The wheel, rigging and ensign of HMS Surprise at the San Diego Maritime Museum. Photo: Karen James 2008

4 May 2009

Comment moderation...

sorry folks, it's back on. The spammers had found us. We'll try to approve as quickly as possible.