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.

1 comment:

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

A great letter. I hope it leads to some advances in funding the project.