4 July 2012

Darwin's Armada and beyond - are sailing and science the perfect match?

By Australian guest blogger Rachel Slatyer. Rachel is a PhD candidate studying adaptation in alpine grasshoppers. She spends her spare time sailing on tall ships and hopes to combine her science and sailing passions through involvement in the HMS Beagle Project.

I recently started reading Darwin's Armada, about the voyages undertaken by Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Wallace, and how these voyages influenced their scientific ideas.  The results – not least the theory of evolution by natural selection – speak for themselves. It made me think about how many other voyages led to scientific discoveries, or provided an opportunity for a researcher to clear their mind and make sense of a problem.

For my birthday last year, my Dad gave me an inspired gift – a book entitled Voyages of Discovery. Upon opening the book I immediately decided I was born in the wrong era (and the wrong gender, because a woman in the early days of sailing exploration would’ve had a mighty hard time getting a berth on a ship, let alone a position as a scientist). 

While this book focussed on natural history - and on the beautiful illustrations produced on voyages before photography - I was sure other fields must have had their own “voyages of discovery”. I set about doing some background reading and stumbled across some amazing stories – some well-known and others less so (at least, I’d never heard of them!).

With the recent transit of Venus, and my work on the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour earlier in the year, the first example that sprung to mind was the Endeavour’s voyage to track the 1769 transit of Venus. Four times every 243 years, Venus passes between the Earth and the sun. With a few measurements and some complicated mathematics, once can calculate the distance from Earth to the Sun. 

Cook left England in 1768, sailing the Endeavour to Tahiti, where the Royal Society had decreed the transit be viewed. Much to my disappointment, Cook and the astronomer Charles Green observed the transit from the shore, as they needed a stable platform and plenty of space – two features entirely lacking on a ship and particularly on the Endeavour – for accurate observations.

Captain Cook passed through Java, home to the black panther, on the return voyage from Tahiti.
He lost 40% of his crew to a fever picked up there.
Sixty years after Endeavour left England, an armada of exploration ships departed the shores of the United States. The USS Vincennes, USS Peacock, US Brig Porpoise, USS Relief, US Schooner Sea Gull and the US Schooner Flying, with a combined displacement of 2157 tons, carried 346 men including 7 scientists, around the world in 4 years (there’s nothing quick about sailing expeditions). 

The figures from the expedition are mind-boggling – nearly 3,000 bird, mammal and fish specimens, over 50,000 plants representing 10,000 species. These collections were to form the foundations of the Smithsonian Institute, and 24 scientific volumes were produced from discoveries made during the expedition, covering fields including meteorology, zoology, botany and physics. 

The US Ex Ex visited New Zealand and brought back ethnographic artefacts.
Today, tall ships still ply these beautiful coastlines.
Another 60 years on, in 1893, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen sailed into the Polar Sea on his ship the Fram. A far cry from the US Expedition, Nansen took just 12 men with him. Nansen’s goal was to reach the North pole and, in doing so, prove Henrik Mohn’s theory of an east-to-west current over the Arctic Ocean – this it did spectacularly and also proved that the polar ice sheet was just that – ice – with no continent buried underneath. 

How did he do this? Well, Nansen designed a ship specifically to withstand pressure from the ice and a hull shaped so that the ice forced it upwards rather than down into the ocean depths. Nansen then sailed her into the ice pack and waited for the currents to push the ship to the North Pole. After 18 months of inching across the Arctic Ocean, Nansen left the ship in an attempt to reach the Pole. Although Nansen didn’t make it to the Pole, he went further north than anyone had been before. His ship continued her slow and steady progress to the North Atlantic and was finally freed from the ice after nearly three years.

Each of the voyages above embarked with the specific purpose of making scientific discoveries. Others, however, stumbled on scientific breakthroughs unexpectedly. In 1840, German doctor Robert Mayer signed on to a Dutch ship bound for Java. During the voyage, Mayer came across two interesting phenomena: first, that the ocean becomes warmer in a storm and second, that in warm environments (like Indonesia) blood from the veins was more brightly red than it is in cold environments (like Germany). 

Somehow, from these seemingly unrelated observations, Mayer formulated the first law of thermodynamics – the conservation of energy. Unfortunately for Mayer, English physicist James Joule came up with the same idea not long after and, being a qualified physicist, was given all the credit. I still think this counts as a discovery made at sea.

A fall from here would be a demonstration of the first law of thermodynamics, with your potential energy at the top of the mountain being converted into kinetic energy as you fall.
One thing I realised while I was reading about these voyages was that there were a lot of them! It seems like the great age of sail coincided with a great age of scientific discovery. Was this a coincidence? 

Here is a question to ponder: did sailing ships serve merely as vehicles, in the days before aeroplanes, or were they (and are they still) a quintessential component of scientific discovery? In other words, is there something about being stuck in a small, crowded space in the middle of the ocean for weeks or months on end that inspires scientific inquiry? 

I’m inclined to believe that bobbing up and down on a still day, or racing along with a good wind abaft the beam allows the mind (at least the part that isn’t concerned with the weather, the minutiae of sailing the ship or the delicious smells wafting up from the galley) to wander into all sorts of weird and wonderful places and forces one to take the time to let the little whispers of ideas grow and develop. And if that’s not enough, a sailing ship did, and still can, take you to remote and wonderful places where there is always the possibility of discovering something new.


Anonymous said...

Excellent points. I've been a big fan of sailing and the geography of the British Empire and the Napoleonic wars for many years. No doubt the truth is a mix of the influences you mention as well as others, but I especially like the question about how being on a very crowded sailing vessel for a very long time (while always being in a cracking hurry, if Patrick O'Brian has anything to say about it) can effect science. It seems likely that one or more of those influences(and others, like sea-sickness) had an impact on the kind of reflection and rumination these people found themselves doing. I doubt, however, that you'll be able to tease the influences of any one thing from the overall, very different, environment of those times (eg social status, economy, nationalism, health, diet, etc).

Megaloblatta said...

Hmmm, I think you'll find that black panthers are not found in Java, but instead on the other side of the planet!