29 January 2012

Travelling to broaden the mind

Today saw the 70th anniversary edition of the classic BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. For those of you unfamiliar with the programme, each week a different celebrity is asked to nominate the eight records that they would take with them to a desert island. For those of you unfamiliar with records, they were a bit like mp3s, but were made out of atoms rather than bits and sounded a lot better.

The special guest for the 70th anniversary programme was Sir David Attenborough. It was Sir David's fourth appearance on Desert Island Discs. An mp3 of the programme is available here.

At the start of the programme, in response to presenter Kirsty Young's suggestion that it was a staggering thought to realise that he has probably seen more of the world than anybody else who has ever lived, Sir David replied:

Well, I suppose so, but then, on the other hand, it's very salutary to remember that perhaps the greatest naturalist who ever lived and had more effect on our thinking than anybody—Charles Darwin—only spent four years travelling, and the rest of the time thinking.

Darwin's voyage around the world on HMS Beagle was closer to five years than four, but Sir David is right: a few years' ship-time was enough to inspire the greatest naturalist who ever lived (there is no ‘perhaps’ about it, Sir David!).

How many future naturalists and other scientists, I wonder, might gain a lifetime's inspiration from a few months' ship-time aboard a new Beagle?

27 January 2012

Charles Darwin and the... Shrewsbury sermons?

American polymath Benjamin Franklin, 10th and youngest son of a working-class family, had to leave school at age 10. Sir Ernest Shackleton was invalided out during his first Antarctic trek; he was later marked for heroism in saving the crew of Endurance. Marie Curie (a.k.a. Maria Sklodowska) was refused entry by Krakow University because she was female, and went on to win Nobel Prizes in two disciplines.

The history of discovery is littered with hard-fought battles just to get on the bus, so to speak. Charles Darwin's story was no exception - his father was dead set against him him traipsing around the world, listing eight objections which included: "Disreputable to [his] character as a Clergyman hereafter... a wild scheme... a useless undertaking."

Those points and influential uncle Josiah Wedgwood's counter-arguments are documented in Cyril Aydon's biography and other easily available sources, and make for engaging reading.

Project advisor Anna Faherty gets up close
This month, however, we got a more intimate look at Darwin's travails, thanks to the Kew Archive, which offered a behind-the-scenes peek at its plant-hunters collection. Darwin's letters ranged from pleading his case and fighting his hammock to cultural observations and storms at sea.

The content is engaging, and the archivists' work is a story in itself. They've collected materials such as correspondence seals - two of which appear to show HMS Beagle - original letters, plant specimens and even an invitation to be a pall-bearer at his Westminster Abbey funeral.

Conservators have also struggled to preserve the artefacts, bathing documents in chemicals to stop the ferrous inks eating through the the paper, and creating folios such as this, with hand-marbled end-papers.
An 1833 letter written aboard HMS Beagle to mentor Rev John Henslow. Note the maximum use of paper. 
The archivists who led Kew's tour were great hosts, and it's clear that classic British plant-hunters have a special place in their hearts - these men (and the odd woman) roamed the planet for the better part of three centuries, and included the likes of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, physician, botanist, Antarctic explorer and Kew's second director.

Many of the collectors illustrated their travels beautifully with drawings and photos, and all of them - like Darwin - multi-tasked to secure their places, working as naval surgeons, surveyors, and even spies. Though Darwin's 'day-job' as Captain Robert FitzRoy's companion could be tense and complicated, he would have had more time than many of his peers for naturalist pursuits.

Another common trait was plant-hunters' influence on matters far beyond botany: Darwin's writings on natural selection, ethics and slavery sparked debate that continues today; William Colenso championed Maori rights in New Zealand; and Hooker helped upset international trade by shifting rubber-tree cultivation from Brazil to Southeast Asia.

Not all the plant-hunters - pioneering botanist Carl Linnaeus among them - struggled to be taken seriously, and it must have been tempting for the 22-year-old Darwin to give up - especially when his father said rather unkindly that many others had surely been asked first but refused because of some problem with the ship or journey.

Good thing he persisted. Being a clergyman would have been an honourable enough choice, but we'd definitely be the poorer for it.

The archives at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew are open to the public, and you can ask to see (or hear) nearly anything in their collection. It's well worth a visit.

The HMS Beagle Project will also be working on a plant-hunters's series of exhibits and talks later this year with new science outreach partner the Garden Museum (this will involve some excellent cakes from their in-house baker ;>). For information, register for updates on our home page.

Sir Joseph Hooker's invitation to Darwin's funeral

26 January 2012

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

What with new ships being in the news,  I thought I'd repost my 2009 Letter to the Editor of Zoologica Scripta* from 2009.


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.

*Note: This is a longer version of a Letter to the Editor published in Zoologica Scripta in 2009 (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', as I've done here. -KJ

17 January 2012

A jubilee ship for the Queen? Why not a Beagle?

Much fluttering in the media dovecotes this week when Education Secretary Michael Gove suggested to Media and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt that maybe a grateful nation should buy Her Majesty a new royal yacht to mark her golden jubilee.

The letter was leaked to the Guardian newspaper, leading the Prime Minister to initially hole the suggestion below the waterline. All sailors will know that leaks are bad for ships. Then, following an approach which outlines plans for a 600 foot, four masted multipurpose sailing ship (sail training, scientific research and with state rooms for her Majesty and retinue at the stern), David Cameron has today supported the plans. As long as it doesn't cost the taxpayer.

Might we suggest that we already have a set of plans, funds coming in (another £500 today, thank you), a builder in the blocks ready to start and a ship with a pedigree and some experience in honouring Royalty.

In July 1820 the newly launched HMS Beagle had the honour of being the first ship to sail under the new London Bridge leading a fleet review to mark the coronation of King George IV. Perhaps Her Majesty might find Beagle's stern cabin somewhat cramped, and it would be remiss of us to expect Royalty to indulge in the gymnastics required of the young Charles Darwin in wriggling his way into his hammock for the first time (oh for a time machine to have seen that moment). As Darwin wrote in his diary:
I intend sleeping in my hammock.- I did so last night & experienced the most ludicrous difficulty in getting into it. My fault of jockeyship was in trying to put my legs in first. The hammock being suspended I thus only succeeded in pushing it away without making any progress in inserting my own body.- The correct method is to sit accurately in centre of bed, then give yourself a dexterous twist & your head & feet come into their respective places.

But for a ship to take the nation's youth sail training, to take its scientists over the horizon, whose building would add excitement to the Olympic year and that of the Queen's Golden Jubilee?

It could only be our very own Beagle. She changed the world. Nothing less would add lustre to 2012.

To find out more, contact us or follow the discussion on FacebookTo donate to the new Beagle or to talk to us about sponsorship, please click here.

13 January 2012

"Sorely tried" on the first leg of the voyage

Guest post by Beagle archivist, writer and editor Dr Gordon Chancellor

The voyage around the world of HMS Beagle was finally under way, this time 180 years ago in January 1832. She was sailing briskly in as southerly a course as possible, heading for Madeira where Captain FitzRoy intended to check the longitude. On board the little 235-ton survey ship were 74 men, plus three Fuegian Indians, the young naturalist Charles Darwin and a few personal servants and all their provisions for crossing the Atlantic to Brazil.

By 13 January they had already crossed the Bay of Biscay where Darwin had suffered terribly from sea sickness. He had been forced to lie down much of the time but this gave him a chance to re-read Alexander Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. That book had fired Darwin’s imagination as a student the year before with its classic descriptions of the Canaries and had convinced him that he needed to explore the tropics himself. He had even starting to plan his own expedition, but this was of course completely ‘knocked on the head’ by the offer of the place on the Beagle.

Around 4 January the voyage had reached Madeira but the swell prevented their landing and FitzRoy decided to press on for Tenerife in the Canaries, which they made on 6 January. Here Darwin suffered what FitzRoy called ‘a real calamity’; a quarantine meant a wait of 12 days before landing. FitzRoy not being a man to twiddle his thumbs, once more gave the order to press on. Darwin was bereft, having longed to see nature as Humboldt had so beautifully described it.

On that day Darwin did, however, do something which in many ways now seems more important for the history of science: he opened his ‘zoological diary’ (published by his great-grandson Richard Keynes in 2000). Apart from his geological training in Wales and near his Shropshire home, this was Darwin’s first ever chance to make new discoveries. His first short entry that day described the way the sea water gave off ‘sparks’ at night.

The Beagle crossed the Tropic of Cancer on 10 January and the weather was beautiful. Darwin constructed a net to catch marine life and started to describe and draw anything unusual. He also started to collect ‘specimens in spirits of wine’, each with its own unique number stamped onto a tin tag and his notes rapidly became more professional-looking.

I have chosen 13 January for this blog post because exactly one year later in 1833 the voyage of the Beagle was very nearly aborted forever by a terrible storm. That was the moment off Tierra del Fuego immortalised by FitzRoy’s account of how the Beagle was ‘sorely tried’ by a giant wave. This tore away one of the precious ship’s boats and nearly sent the Beagle and all who sailed in her to the bottom. My father John Chancellor painted the scene in 1982, not long before his untimely death, as I described in the special Darwin issue of ‘The Linnean’ in 2009. It is sobering to reflect that if the little ship had sunk that day the wonderful Beagle Project would not be happening and every one of us would be the poorer.