Sunday, December 28, 2008

Voyage of the Beagle and Ascension Island

Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle from England 177 years ago on Dec 27, 1831 on the start of a 5-year voyage that continues to affect science and society today. Thanks to Michael at Palaeoblog for pointing out this anniversary. Most of us are thinking about the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth coming up in 2009, along with the 150th anniversary of publication of "Origin of Species."

This pair of events will be part of the "Year of Science" celebration that launches next week.

My own ties to the Beagle expedition involve tiny Ascension Island which lies just off the Mid-Atlantic ridge in the south Atlantic. HMS Beagle stopped there briefly on its return to England and Darwin made the first geologic observations and investigations of the volcanic island. Although uninhabited, it maintained a small garrison in the early 1800s to guard Napoleon on St. Helena, and since WWII has been a strategic communications center.

I started working on Ascension in 1987 as part of a geothermal exploration program. We were the 4th geologic party to work on the island, counting Darwin as the first. [top, Sisters volcanoes, Ascension Island. My photo. bottom, geologic map of Ascension Island, University of Utah Research Inst.]

My last trip there was in 2005, drilling samples for paleomag studies with Mike Valentine from University of Puget Sound. Every trip I discover something, many things, new. There's a sense of bonding with Charles Darwin and other explorers - the excitement of seeing something for the first time. The excitement of understanding something that others have seen but not understood. Knowing that those who come after will find the connections that we've missed.

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