30 June 2012

The 21st Century Naturalist (Or What the HMS Beagle Project Means to Me)

Guest post by Rob Viens, science teacher and current Dean of the Science Division at Bellevue College in Washington State. See here for Rob's earlier post about facing illness and fear in the jungle.

For the past few months I have been following Darwin's voyage on the Beagle through the daily entries in his personal diary and field notebooks – trying to get to know him as a person and relive his first encounters with the natural environment of the New World.  
Down House/English Heritage recreation of Charles Darwin at work in his cabin.
Photo Lisa Taylor
Among other things, I have come to the conclusion that being a naturalist may be a lost art and, more importantly, that the world needs naturalists like Charles Darwin more then ever before. And although having more full-fledged, full-time naturalists would be ideal, I think it would benefit all scientists to have a certain degree of training as a naturalist. Why, you might ask?  Well, because naturalists are a particularly unique type of field scientist that can (1) make good observations, (2) integrate many different fields of study, and (3) share their discoveries by writing about the natural world. Let me elaborate.

First – as others have noted, Darwin was a fantastic observer of the natural world, a skill that is particularly well honed in any good naturalist. Observations are the cornerstone of good science (along with good questions, as Rachel Slatyer noted in an earlier blog). They are the foundation of good interpretations – so if the observations are bad, the hypotheses are meaningless.  Placing a scientist in an explored region with only a pen and paper requires them to really think about how to observe and how to use descriptive writing to paint a picture.  I like to emphasize this with my students and really try to have them describe things in as much detail as possible.

Some of Darwin's finch sketches, reproduced in the beautiful blog Venetian Red,
wherein two artists turn the tables and explore ideas through art.
Second – naturalists have the ability to synthesise many different disciplines. The 20th century saw scientists become more and more specialized.  Today, for example, there are biologists who specialize in the A-G-C's of genetics without ever examining a "living" organism. Many of the global environmental issues of today require us to take a much more interdisciplinary look at a problem if we ever hope to come to a solution.

In this regard Darwin was a exceptional naturalist.  Don't get me wrong - he made mistakes (which is OK in science) - but I never cease to be amazed at the range of subjects Darwin wrote about during his travels. Geology, of course, was a central theme, as are biology and ecology, but he also hypothesised about meteorology, astronomy, oceanography, chemistry, and many other subfields of science. His attention to detail meant that his hypotheses were often on the mark.  

St Paul's Rocks today - still not a typical ocean island.
Photo John Vergari, Wikimedia Commons
One example of this came in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he recognised that St. Paul's Rocks was not typical ocean island but instead was made of the rare rock serpentinite (which we now know is a piece of the mantle). This is amazing considering that he was a 23-yr old with just a few months of formal training in geology (via Adam Sedgwick).

Third – a true naturalist is more than a scientist (and I mean that not as an insult to scientists J). They are writers and often poets or artists, and have the ability to share the wonder of nature with the rest of the world. Ed Abbey (not a scientist, but a good observer in his own right) once wrote:

"Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess the ability to communicate to the rest of us the sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers."    

(from Abbey's essay Come on In, excerpted by Ranger Kathryn Burke of Arches National Park, a geological wonderland Darwin might have loved)

Darwin had this skill, too. I'm only about five months into his diary/journals (I'm trying not to read ahead so that I can relive the trip in real time) and I can already appreciate Darwin's poetic writing style, and his ability to infuse his excitement into his words. Take, for example, his first impression of he New World Forest upon arriving in Brazil in February 1832:

“The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. —if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over. — if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise. — I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.” 
(Darwin's Beagle Diary, 28 February 1832)

The Brazilian forest as Darwin experienced it, from a painting he cited.
Forêt vierge du Brésil, Charles de Clarac
What this all boils down to, is that before making the trip on the Beagle, Darwin had the potential to be a great scientist – he certainly had an eye for detail and loved to collect and catalog things. But what really made him a great scientist was having the opportunity to hone those skills as a naturalist on the voyage of the Beagle.  There is nothing like being in the field to open your eyes (and ears and nose) to the details and relationships among the living and nonliving world.  Reconstructing the Beagle, and setting sail to explore the natural word, has the potential to inspire new ideas and train new scientists with the skills of a naturalist.

So what does the HMS Beagle Project mean to me?  It is a chance to re-explore the world through the eyes of a naturalist – absorbing the whole of nature and synthesizing the "natural sciences" into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a chance to rekindle the role of the naturalist and train a new generation of scientists to be able to observe, hypothesise and solve problems in a holistic way.  It is a chance to share the beauty and splendour of the natural world through art and poetry.  When I think about how important this trip was to Darwin, and the legacy it has left us, I can only wonder what having another opportunity to explore the world via a 21st century Beagle could mean for the future.  I hope some day to know the answer.

This reproduction of Darwin's Tree of Life diagram is from a Levittown, PA high school biology website, worth a visit in itself to see how dedicated teachers are getting science across to young people.
As a newcomer to the project, I'm curious to know - what does the HMS Beagle Project mean to you?

26 June 2012

Bird's eye view of the Beagle's grave.

A fascinating blog post from Sean B. Palmer.

He has published aerial photos and maps of the Beagle's proposed resting place near Paglesham.

The site was identified in 2004 by Dr Robert Prescott formerly of ST Andrews University.  Ground penetrating radar shows the outline of something hull-like 5 metres down in the ooze. There is a pretty good document trail suggesting that this is indeed the Beagle's final berth.

As we have said here before, HMS Beagle is one of the most significant ships in British, world and scientific history.

If the spot marked in Mr. Palmer's position is indeed Beagle's present resting place it should not be her last.

No nation that calls itself a civilized, advanced society should let such an icon of adventure, exploration and scientific endeavour rest under five metres of Essex mud.

25 June 2012

Why we need a Beagle (n)

To help stop this kind of  intellectual abuse of schoolchildren happening.

US creationist text book uses Loch Ness Monster to 'disprove' evolution.

As the good book says, 'Canst though draw out leviathan with a hook?' Not in this case, it doesn't exist.

'Ya great numpties,' as they'd say on the banks of Loch Ness.

Lonesome George 19??-2012

I just learned that Lonesome George, last of the Pinta Island tortoises, has died, signaling the extinction* of that subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni.

The coverage is still flooding in, but the best so far is this short but poignant interview with Director of the Galapagos National Park. It seems George's body was discovered by Fausto Llerena, "a park ranger who coincidentally rescued Lonesome George from Pinta island in 1972 and took care of him all these years." (h/t to @VaranusSalvator @cubismwonder for the link)

I'm just one of hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of visitors who "met" Lonesome Gorge (Solitario Jorge in Spanish) in his pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. In my case it was on October 22, 2010, while I was visiting Galapagos as part of the Wellcome Trust's Galapagos Live project.
A sign pointing the way to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos. Photo by the author.
Galapagos Live participants look into Lonesome George's pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Photo by the author.
Lonesome George's pen. There he is at center-right. The smaller tortoise at center-left is one of several females of another subspecies of tortoise with which he shared his pen (but alas, not his bed). Photo by the author.
Lonesome George. Photo by the author.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is the beating heart of science in Galapagos. It's run by the venerable Charles Darwin Foundation, an "international not-for-profit organization that provides scientific research and technical information and assistance to ensure the proper preservation of the Galapagos Islands." Among its many (many) scientific activities, the station runs a tortoise breeding program which rears young tortoises for reintroduction into the wild.
Galapagos giant tortoise eggs. Photo by the author.

But the fact that I saw Lonesome George with my own eyes isn't the reason I'm so upset to learn the news of his death. It's the fact that he was, and still is, a symbol.

He is the literal symbol of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galapagos Conservancy and the Galapagos Conservation Trust, among others. He even has his own clothing brand (great stuff, by the way, and a portion of proceeds supports conservation).
But more importantly he is a symbol of human efforts to slow a mass extinction of our own making. And I hope and believe he will continue on as that symbol beyond his gravelly grave.


To learn more about the formerly Lonesome George, I recommend Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon by Henry Nicholls.

*Russello et al. (2007) reported the discovery of a tortoise "of Pinta ancestry"on Isabela Island. Now we just need one more…

23 June 2012

Darwin disperser Michael Barton

brings to our attention this charming illustration of the young Darwin as an Galapagosian iguana might have seen him.

The pic will be gracing the pages of Jason Chin's forthcoming book Island: A Story of the Galapagos.

21 June 2012

Go and admire this model of HMS Beagle...

5 years in the building, a labour of love by Richard Painter of the Rocky Mountain Shipwrights.

Dawkins on Bacon (the radio show, not the food).

A rather good interview with Richard Dawkins on BBC Radio 5 Live's Richard Bacon show today.

The interview was loosely about the forthcoming  paperback release of Dawkins' book The Magic of Reality (Guardian review here). Richard B asked Richard D the questions that many would, and gave his guest time to answer without interrupting. A good deal of the interview deals with evolution, its place in science, the world and its doubters.

A worthwhile podcast to download, which you can here, for the next 30 days. Scroll in 3 minutes before starting to listen.

Apologies, your Majesty.

The HMS Beagle Project really should have been more on the ball in congratulating Her Majesty the Queen on her 60 years on the throne.

Stage left: 'Oh for heaven's sake, has the infernal man found a link between the Jubilee and HMS Beagle?'

Yes. For not long after her launch in 1820, HMS Beagle took part in the parade of sail on the River Thames to mark the coronation of King George the IV, during which she had the distinction of being the first man o' war to sail under the old London Bridge. (Which, in itself must have been quite a feat of seamanship on the part of the officers and crew.)

Watching the parade of boats that braved the wretched weather to salute Her Majesty, I was deeply sorry that we haven't yet raised the necessary cash to start bolting wood together, far less have a Beagle reprising her 1820 role in 2012. Asking people for £5 million to build a boat at a time when the world economy is cratering is not an easy thing to do. But we aren't daunted. We are not here running this organization for its own sake, we want to get that boat built.
So, Prince Charles or Prince William, whichever of you ever next sits in Westminster Abbey with the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest (scroll to 1.30 to avoid the presenter's blithering and get to the music) ringing in his ears, here's a note for your secret Coronation party plan: there will be an HMS Beagle available for your parade of sail.

Count on it.