27 July 2012

The HMS Beagle Olympics

[Cross-posted from The Friends of Charles Darwin blog]

As the Games of the XXX Olympiad officially commence in London later today, the good people of Much Wenlock in Shropshire can be rightly proud that their own modern version of the Olympic Games, founded in 1850, inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to create what was to become the world's greatest sporting event: the Olympic Games. Yet Much Wenlock was not the only nineteenth-century community to celebrate its own, local ‘Olympic Games’. The City of Liverpool (the world's greatest, in my rather biased opinion) held an annual ‘Grand Olympic Festival’ from 1862–67. Far more importantly, however, the crew of HMS Beagle held their own ‘Olympic Games’ at Port Desire, Patagonia, on Christmas Day, 1833. Charles Darwin takes up the story in his Beagle Diary:
25th [December, 1833] Christmas After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can. —
The HMS Beagle Olympics might not have had the wall-to-wall television and internet coverage enjoyed by modern sports fans (and endured by the rest of us), but fortunately the ship's artist, Conrad Martens, was on hand to record the event for posterity:

‘Slinging the Monkey, Port Desire’, by Conrad Martens (1833).

Shown here is Slinging the monkey, Port Desire, the original of which now resides in Cambridge University Library. The sketch depicts HMS Beagle (L) and the Adventure (R) at anchor. In the foreground, six sailors play the naval game Swinging the Monkey, which involved hanging one of their number upside down until he was able to beat one of his taunting colleagues with a stick, after which, the two men swapped places. Darwin was right to worry about Beagle's crew getting drunk on Christmas Day. At the very start of the voyage, two years earlier, the ship having been stuck in Devonport for weeks, waiting for a change in the weather, Darwin recorded in his diary:
Monday 26th [December, 1831] A beautiful day, & an excellent one for sailing, — the opportunity has been lost owing to the drunkedness & absence of nearly the whole crew. — The ship has been all day in state of anarchy. One days holiday has caused all this mischief; such a scene proves how absolutely necessary strict discipline is amongst such thoughtless beings as Sailors are.- Several have paid the penalty for insolence, by sitting for eight or nine hours in heavy chains. — Whilst in this state, their conduct was like children, abusing every body & thing but themselves, & the next moment nearly crying. — It is an unfortunate beginning, being obliged so early to punish so many of our best men there was however no choice left as to the necessity of doing it.
History does not record which of the Beagle's crew won the most medals at the Beagle Olympics, nor whether they would have put much store in the motto of the modern Olympic Games: Citius, Altius, Fortius [Faster, Higher, Stronger]—although it does have a certain Darwinian ring to it.

10 July 2012

The Geek Manifesto: A rallying cry for evidence-based thinking


A review of new book The Geek Manifesto by guest blogger and long-time HMS Beagle Project advisor Anna Faherty.

I learned a new phrase while reading Mark Henderson’s new book The Geek Manifesto: “evidence abuse”. Like substance abuse, it might start small, but can soon escalate to dangerous proportions. Class A examples of evidence abuse include:
  • Evidence shopping – looking for evidence that supports your view and ignoring anything that doesn’t;
  • Imaginary evidence – citing fictitious evidence to support your view;
  • Clairvoyant evidence – prejudging that the evidence will support your view before it has even been gathered; and
  • Secret evidence – citing unpublished (and therefore inaccessible) evidence to support your view.

A former science editor of The Times, Henderson makes the case that, along with plain old fixing or mishandling of evidence, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have a dangerous habit for all of the above. He discusses the importance of science within society, but more generally emphasises the importance of taking an evidence-based approach to public policy.

The examples of evidence abuse Henderson cites (as might be expected, the ten chapters of the book are supported by 58 pages of references) are a shocking read, especially when shown alongside sobering statistics about the underrepresentation of scientists – people who live and breathe evidence-based thinking – in the political process.

The Geek Manifesto is a call for anyone (both scientists and those who appreciate and understand the methods and value of science) to change this sorry state of affairs. In that sense, it is a much more practical book than that other beacon of evidence-based thinking, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre’s book is a similarly shocking exposé of misrepresented or misappropriated science, yet riled readers (and I defy anyone not to be riled by the shenanigans of a certain ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith) have little recourse to change the situation. Not so with The Geek Manifesto.

We can change things, says Henderson – and without too much effort. Some of his suggestions include:
  • Write to your MP, representative or senator about science issues, share useful information with them and let them know that their pursuit or support of evidence-based policy will encourage you to vote them into a second term.
  • Fact-check politicians’ policy announcements and embarrass any evidence abusers by publishing details to the world through social media.
  • Even if you’re not an expert, share your views in public consultations about government policy – otherwise the received view of the “general public” is likely to be that of those individuals who have been successfully mobilised by politically-savvy lobby groups, which may not always focus on the evidence.
  • Buy or access The Times on the days when its science supplement Eureka is published, or read and comment on the Guardian’s science blogs  (which are contributed to by HMS Beagle Project director Karen James). Both will demonstrate to the mainstream media that good quality science coverage pays.
  • Give friendly advice to journalists when you see them getting something wrong. If they fail to heed it, complain to their editor, or the Press Complaints Commission.
  • Join the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Science is Vital, or support Sense About Science.

Even if you don’t want to take the political process in hand yourself, The Geek Manifesto still provides a thought-provoking discussion of “why science matters” (the subtitle of the book) to a range of social issues, including education, the criminal justice system and economics as well as the more obvious areas of healthcare and the environment.

It includes an excellent summary of what science is (and what it is not) – my favourite part of which is the idea that science isn't a noun, it's a verb, which is rather reminiscent of Charles Darwin's penchant for “geologising”... While it’s a great idea to send every British MP a copy of the entire book, how many will actually read it? Printing out pages seven to nine and forcing them each to learn how science works by heart might perhaps be a more effective option.

Henderson also shares an insightful analysis of why the union of science and politics is so problematic – just like journalists and scientists, politicians and scientists think very differently and value different things. Changing your mind is de rigeur for scientists who come across new evidence; it’s a sign of weakness for a politician. Scientists value experiments and what they can learn from failure; politicians won’t admit that most new policies are in fact experiments and therefore fail to learn anything from them. Scientists want to answer questions; politicians want to talk about solutions. Scientists think their work, and “the numbers”, should do the talking; politicians want qualitative narratives about outcomes and impact. Scientists value evidence-based policy; politicians want policy-based evidence. And so on…

There’s no shying away from outlining the work scientists themselves need to do to improve their own lobbying and communication skills, though. Or of admitting that many policy decisions may ultimately go against the evidence – for a number of reasons. Henderson simply wants politicians to be honest if that turns out to be the case.

Still, the book isn’t just calling for politicians to be “intelligent consumers of science, [who] must know how to interrogate purportedly scientific findings to judge their reliability... be able to recognise the rules of thumb by which scientists evaluate others' work, such as good controls, peer-reviewed publication and republication, and ... have a feel for spotting extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence." 

Henderson is also aiming towards everyone having a sound appreciation of the wonder of science, the contributions it makes to the modern world and the power of its experimental methods – which can be applied to just about any part of our lives.

That’s an aim shared by the vision of the HMS Beagle Project. So, perhaps we should add another bullet point to the list above:

If you're not already a card-carrying geek, I recommend The Geek Manifesto, along with Goldacre's Bad Science, as an excellent way of getting up to speed on how science works, why it's important and how evidence is often abused, miscommunicated or full-on ignored at the general public’s expense. If you’re a scientist, you’ll find The Geek Manifesto shocking and inspirational in equal measure, and almost certainly be moved to do something about it. As an HMS Beagle Project supporter, you're already making a difference, but there's plenty more ideas in the book if you want to become more active.

Anna Faherty is a Cambridge University Natural Sciences graduate who specialised in physics and theoretical physics. She’s an award-winning lecturer and has developed school-level learning resources for a range of clients, including national government-funded institutions such as the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum. Despite a shortage of specialist physics teachers, under Education Secretary Michael Gove’s policy would be unable to train as a school teacher – because she only achieved a third class degree. The evidence for Gove’s decision is unclear…

8 July 2012

Blogkeeping: important stuff.

1. Dr Karen James, scientist of this parish, has jumped a very important hurdle. She has made the first cut for NASA astronaut training. If there is anyone not aware of this (Dr. K is a prolific tweeter) do send her congrats and best wishes for whatever comes next in the selection process. This is big, it is clever and it is richly deserved.

Britain had this talented lady working under our scientific eaves and we?

Let her escape to her native America.

2. Who isn't interested in dinosaurs? If you are, Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings is a great read. A bone-a fide palaeontologist, smart as paint and writes well.

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.