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11 February 2016

Great Adventurers of Science

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Science and exploration have always formed a rewarding symbiosis. Since the beginning of History, humans have applied the knowledge of each era to discover new worlds, and in turn exploration has contributed to the progress of science, helping us to understand nature and to develop new technologies. Although today there are no more white spaces on the map, we continue to explore our last frontiers, the ocean floor and outer space. Part of our current science is owed to them, these great adventurers who lent their shoulders so that we can continue to look beyond.

Charles Darwin 

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) is hardly what we would define as an adventurer. And yet, at a crucial moment in his life in which his practical mind led him to list the pros and cons of the decision to marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood, he not only considered that marriage would steal time away from his readings or his scientific discussions, but he also feared that tying himself to a woman would mean that he would never “see the Continent —or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales,” as he himself wrote.

Portrait of Charles Darwin, after returning from the Beagle expedition. Author: George Richmond

The truth is that the English naturalist combined the qualities of the scholar and the explorer. He was a keen observer and a pragmatic and systematic man, but in his youth he was more interested in hunting and horseback riding than in pursuing his studies. He only made one great trip in his life, but during his voyage of nearly five years around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, from 1831 to 1836, he climbed mountains and traveled on foot over large parts of South America, where he found no lack of adventure such as earthquakes, diseases, volcanic eruptions, incidents involving native peoples and even insurrections.

The Beagle expedition had as its primary objective the production of nautical charts. However, his work as a naturalist gave him the scientific material he needed to develop his great work, the idea of ​​natural selection as the driving force of the evolution of species, a theory that revolutionized our understanding of nature.

James Cook 

The captain of the Royal Navy James Cook (November 7, 1728 – February 14, 1779) did not seem destined at birth to circumnavigate the globe and discover new territories, but rather to be a farmer —the same occupation of his father, who did not even own the land on which he worked. But to the young Cook the farming life seemed small, and it was at age 16, while working as a shop boy in a haberdashery in a fishing village, that he first felt the call of the sea. He began his career in the merchant navy, and not until the age of 26 did he join the British Navy.

Official portrait of Captain James Cook. Author: Nathaniel Dance-Holland

After that his career took off, thanks to his participation in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and his self-taught training in mathematics and astronomy. In 1766, the Admiralty put him in command of a scientific expedition to the Pacific, whose main purpose was to record the transit of Venus across the Sun in order to design a method of measuring longitude. In total, Cook made three trips around the world in command of the ships Endeavour and Resolution, from 1768 to 1779. On the second voyage, he was given the mission, which would be turn out to be fruitless, to look for the hypothetical great southern continent known as Terra Australis.

On his return from this expedition he was given an honorary retirement, but Cook could not resist embarking on a third voyage, aimed at finding the Northwest Passage that would open up a new shipping route along the northern coast of North America. In this he did not succeed, and during that journey he found his end; on February 14, 1779 he was killed during a conflict with the natives of Hawaii.

Scott and Amundsen

The race for the conquest of the South Pole is one of the most famous episodes in the history of exploration, and the climax of what has been called the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. This historic competition saw both glory and tragedy, the former for the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who won the competition and returned triumphant to Europe, and the latter for his opponent, Britain’s Robert Falcon Scott, who not only lost the race, but also his life.

Scott (standing, in the middle) and his team at the South Pole, after they discovered Amundsen had reached the pole first. Author: Henry Bowers

Scott (June 6, 1868 – March 29, 1912) was a naval officer when he volunteered to lead the British expedition to Antarctica. According to his biographers, he was motivated more by a desire to advance his career than by the calling of polar exploration. His first trip, between 1901 and 1904, managed to set a record for the most southern latitude reached, but without conquering the pole. On his second attempt in 1910, Scott found himself facing a powerful opponent, Amundsen (July 16, 1872 – June 18, 1928), a sailor from a maritime family, who also came with Antarctic experience and who had, a few years earlier, first opened the Northwest Passage through the Arctic above North America.

Amundsen would plant the Norwegian flag at the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Scott’s team, delayed by bad decisions and misfortune, was always behind and he would come to discover the triumph of his rival on January 17, 1912. Amundsen managed to return safely, while Scott and his four companions succumbed to exhaustion, hunger and cold. Their bodies were recovered in November of that year.

Ernest Shackleton 

The figure of Ernest Shackleton (February 15, 1874 – January 5, 1922) was overshadowed at the time by the struggle between Amundsen and Scott. However, over time, his feat of survival on ice has come to be remembered as one of the most epic achievements of the human spirit. The Anglo-Irish Shackleton was called to adventure from an early age, and at 16 he enlisted in the navy. His first notable action was as third officer on the Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1901, from which he had to return prematurely in 1903 due to illness, although some biographers suspect that Scott wanted to be rid of him due to the jealousy that his popularity provoked. Shackleton was a leader, and on his return to England he did not find satisfaction in any of the occupations in which he dabbled, from journalism to politics to business.

Shackleton during his Nimrod expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic. Credit: Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research

All this led him to leave again in 1907 with the intention of reaching the South Pole, but this expedition failed. In 1914, with the pole already conquered by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, Shackleton embarked on the ambitious Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, with the aim of crossing the white continent on a journey of 2,900 kilometers. But the explorer’s real ordeal began on January 19, 1915 when his ship, the Endurance, was trapped in ice. Thus began a harrowing struggle for survival that would last some 497 days, until the expedition stepped onto land at Elephant Island, 557 kilometers from the wreck.

Shackleton returned to England in 1917, now with an ailment in his heart, which eventually failed in South Georgia in 1922, at the start of his fourth expedition. A recent study has suggested that the explorer might have suffered from a congenital heart problem, a malformation that connected both atria, commonly known as a “hole in the heart.”

Thor Heyerdahl 

The name of the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl (October 6, 1914 – April 18, 2002) is inevitably tied to his boat, the Kon-Tiki, and the journey that he successfully completed in 1947 from the coast of Peru to the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. It was a transpacific voyage of 101 days and 6,900 kilometers on a wooden raft built by hand, a feat often said to have been achieved using only pre-Columbian equipment and technology. However, this is not entirely true as Heyerdahl and his five companions had some modern instruments with them such as a radio, knives, watches and sextants, in addition to relying on navigation charts and having bottles of water and canned foods.

Colored photo of the Kon-Tiki raft (1947). Credit: National Library of Norway

Nor has his legend been obscured by the fact that the theory he was trying to prove was wrong. Since young, Heyerdahl was interested in anthropology and the zoology of the Pacific, and his studies led him to propose the idea that Polynesia was settled from the coast of South America. Though the success of the Kon-Tiki expedition proved that the voyage was at least feasible, genetic testing not available at the time has supported the traditional assumption that Polynesia was settled from West to East, from the coast of Asia.

Although Heyerdahl made great efforts to back up his anthropological theories, his principles have never been proved, and his relationship with the scientific community was always strained. Nowadays, he is remembered more as a great explorer and adventurer than as a reliable academic researcher.

Alfred Lothar Wegener 

If Alfred Wegener (November 1, 1880 – November ?, 1930) were to come back to life, he might not be surprised to discover that his theory of continental drift is found in all modern science textbooks. After all, he never wavered in the belief that his hypothesis was correct, that all the modern continents were at one time united in a single landmass, Pangea. And this was despite the fact that the German meteorologist was up against campaigns to discredit him that were some of the harshest in the history of science. He was accused of being an upstart, without any knowledge of geology, who suffered from the “disease of the moving crust.” The entire scientific establishment of his time was against him, with few exceptions.

Photograph of Wegener’s last expedition in Greenland. Credit: Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute

In 1910, while Wegener was leafing through a friend’s atlas, he could not ignore the observation that the edges of continents fit together like the separated pieces of a puzzle. He was not the first person to notice this, but until then no one had dared to question the dogma that the Earth’s geography was static. Wegener resolved to solve the puzzle, and with that decision he created an uproar. In 1912, he first presented his theory at conferences and in writing, and in 1915 he published it in his book Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans), which he would continue reviewing and updating until his death.

Wegener’s theory was never accepted during his lifetime; it was only in the 1950s that paleomagnetic studies began to convince scientists that the continents have shifted over the history of the Earth and continue to do so. This would not have surprised Wegener, but the fact that he is not remembered today as a polar explorer likely would have. This is because not only did he participate in four expeditions to Greenland, but also that he lost his life on the final one as he was returning from the interior of the island to the coast. In fact, although Wegener’s body was found on May 12, 1931, having been buried in the snow by his Inuit companion, his remains were never removed from that place, and today its location is lost. His last notes, which his native companion took with him before suffering the same fate as Wegener, are now lost in the ice forever.

by Javier Yanes for Ventana al Conocimiento


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