Scientific Expeditions Research Paper

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Scientific expeditions are voyages of discovery that are essentially motivated by advancing knowledge and understanding of the unknown through various scientific techniques. These kinds of expeditions have been undertaken for millennia and include explorations and examinations of a wide range of scientific fields and disciplines, such as botany, astronomy, biology, geology, entomology, and oceanography.

Scientific expeditions are attempts to go beyond the traditional limits of geography, culture, and survival in order to further human knowledge by answering specific questions through observation in a disciplined scientific framework. Scientific expeditions are often motivated by a desire for adventure or national glory, yet they can also bridge or even erase cultural divides in the search of knowledge. In antiquity the Greeks undertook the first recorded observational voyages, and in the Middle Ages Chinese civilization mounted large sailing fleets for exploration. In the seventeenth century European scientific societies sponsored expeditions focused on solving specific problems. In the eighteenth century, European Enlightenment thinkers promoted both science and educational travel for the advancement of Western civilization, resulting in the great European circumnavigations and American continental expeditions. As scientific disciplines and training became narrower and more differentiated, expeditions focused on specialized studies to push distinct disciplinary boundaries. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, expeditions have focused on the last frontiers of scientific exploration, including remote regions like the Arctic and the Himalayas, the deep sea, and outer space.

Observations in Transit: Antiquity–1500

The earliest records of human civilization show a clear interest in both science and travel, but it is not until classical antiquity that we have evidence of the two coming together. Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 BCE) included philosophers and observers on his campaign throughout Asia and the Mediterranean (334–323 BCE) and established Greek scholarly and scientific traditions in many of the lands he conquered, thus adding a scientific component to an expedition of military conquest. The Greek Pythias traveled from Marseille to England around 300 BCE to purchase tin but also made a thorough scientific study of the journey, recording observations while on land and at sea. Pythias was the first to systematically measure latitudes while at sea, and, going beyond mere observations, he hypothesized a correlation between the tides and the phases of the moon.

Many voyages of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance counted botanists and other scientific observers among their passengers. None was close in scale or ambition to the vast expedition of the Chinese explorer Zheng He. His first voyage left Liujia harbor in July 1405 with some sixty-seven enormous ships and around 28,000 men, the largest scientific expedition ever undertaken. Sent by the emperor of the prosperous Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Zheng He’s fleet was prepared to take measurements and record nautical information, including compass readings and other observations, in a regular logbook, a practice that appeared only later among European expeditions. The fleet crossed the South China Sea, visiting Java, Sri Lanka, and India, and returned in 1407. On subsequent voyages with fleets as large as two to three hundred ships, Zheng He traveled to Yemen, Mecca, Somalia, East Africa, and India. Zheng He was ordered to study carefully the customs of local peoples everywhere he went, and each voyage included a team of doctors, naturalists, and observers.

Problem-Solving Expeditions: 1500–1750

As the Ming dynasty lost its wealth and prominence on the world stage (seafaring expeditions were even forbidden by order of the emperor in the late fifteenth century), European developments in sailing and science accelerated rapidly. As European monarchs began to spread their power and influence beyond the Mediterranean world to Africa, South Asia, and the Americas, these became new arenas for scientific expeditions. At the same time, European science was becoming a professional and often state-sponsored activity with large organizations guiding research, such as the Royal Society of London (begun in 1660) and the Paris Academy of Sciences (begun in 1666). These societies sponsored a new kind of scientific expedition that was designed not merely to gather general information, but to solve specific scientific problems.

French voyages to the South Atlantic, such as that of Bouvet de Lozier in 1738, were aimed at determining the existence and location of the fabled Terra Australis, a vast southern continent believed to lie just below the tip of South America and to harbor great riches. Expeditions to find Terra Australis were often scientifically motivated, in the hope of discovering new species of plants and animals and illuminating the question of the spread of animal and human varieties around the globe, one of the pressing questions of eighteenth-century natural history and biology. Even more narrowly focused was the 1735 Maupertuis-Lacondamine expedition to discover the exact shape of the Earth. This voyage, sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences, was the product of a scientific controversy between the followers of the French philosopher and physicist Rene Descartes (1596–1650), whose theories predicted that the Earth was slightly smaller around the equator than around the poles, and the followers of Isaac Newton (1642– 1727), whose new physical system implied that the Earth must instead be slightly larger around the equator. Two parties were sent to remote parts of the Earth, one to Lapland, near the North Pole, and one to Peru, near the equator, to measure the Earth’s curvature at each location and thus decide which system was correct. Besides a wealth of botanical and geographical information and specimens, the expeditions returned with measurements that supported the Newtonian world system, a great experimental triumph for Newtonian physics.

Great Scientific Circumnavigations: 1750–1800

Inspired by both the scientific and imperial potential of expeditions like those of Bouvet and Maupertuis, European monarchs began to fund large-scale scientific circumnavigations beginning in the 1750s. Louis Antoine de Bougainville sailed around the world with a team of scientists trained in Paris to record the plant, animal, and human varieties of the Americas and especially the Pacific. Bougainville’s voyage sparked the European image of Pacific Islanders, especially Tahitians, as an ideal human society and served as an inspiration for the three voyages of the British captain James Cook between 1768 and 1780. Cook’s voyages combined the specific and general modes of scientific expedition. He first sought to observe the passage of Venus in front of the sun at Tahiti (astronomers used these observations to determine with great precision the distance between the Earth and the sun), but also had instructions to make a general scientific survey of the islands. On board was the botanist Joseph Banks, who quarreled with Cook and never traveled with him again, but who became a central figure in European botany after the voyage. Cook’s second voyage aimed to finally disprove the existence of Terra Australis, circling Antarctica at low latitudes and finding nothing but ice. His third voyage aimed to find a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but focused on exploring the Pacific, ending with the discovery of Hawaii, where Cook was killed after a dispute with natives.

The French response to Cook’s explorations was to mount a nationally sponsored scientific circumnavigation led by Jean Francois de Laperouse, with unprecedented scientific preparation: four sets of elaborate instructions, including lengthy ones from the Paris Academy of Sciences and the Royal Academy of Medicine. After all trace of Laperouse’s expedition was lost in 1788, the Revolutionary government outdid the monarchy by outfitting the most ambitious navigational survey and rescue ship to date, captained by Antoine d’Entrecasteaux, which failed to find Laperouse but nonetheless returned with the hitherto most accurate hydrographic charts of the Pacific.

The Spanish expedition under Alejandro Malaspina (1789–1794) used Spain’s American colonies as a base from which to make a botanical and hydrographic survey of the entire Pacific from Alaska to Australia. At the close of the eighteenth century, the last of the great Enlightenment scientific expeditions, Lewis and Clark’s survey of the American West (1800–1803), and German scholar Alexander von Humboldt’s long overland journey (1799–1804) through North and South America, perfected the new mode of broadly defined scientific travel.

Discipline-Specific Voyages: 1800–1900

The nineteenth century ushered in a new form of scientific expedition that reflected the new professionalization and specialization in science itself. Probably the most famous scientific expedition of all time was the product of this shift: the voyage of the HMS Beagle (1831–1836) included a young naturalist who made guided observations on the specific variations of plants and animals across geographical regions. It was these observations that led the naturalist, Charles Darwin (1809–1882), to propose his theory of evolution some twenty years later, revolutionizing biology and more general thought about human origins.

The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 aimed to put advances in navigation and charting to use to master the geography of the Pacific. The Challenger expedition (1871–1875), under the Edinburgh marine naturalist Wyville Thomas, actually created a new discipline: oceanography. Sparked by a debate over how deep in the ocean life could exist, Challenger took advantage of new dredging techniques to study all facets of ocean life.

Astronomy had long been a component of travel, and astronomers were frequent members of scientific expeditions, but in the late nineteenth century a wave of support grew for specifically astronomical expeditions, especially those to observe solar eclipses. When photography was introduced into astronomy around 1870, it became a key element in transporting scientific information from the expedition site to the sponsoring country or laboratory. Expeditions such as Norman Lockyer’s to Bekul, India, to observe the solar eclipse of 1871, were central to the rise of nationally funded science in Britain and took advantage of its growing colonial empire.

Many of the key figures in creating government support for all kinds of science in Britain were themselves planners of eclipse expeditions. By the late 1800s, national scientific styles began to strongly influence astronomical travel: British and French expeditions depended on highly centralized funding, while U.S. expeditions were locally organized and funded, usually by a university or observatory.

The Final Frontiers: 1900–Present

With the dawn of the twentieth century, the focus of scientific travel shifted once again to geographical exploration, this time in the last regions of the globe left unexplored. The Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1918, led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, marks the beginning of this trend. Stefansson’s goal was to cross the Beaufort Sea and study the balance of earth, ice, and water at the edge of the polar ice cap. He was trained as an anthropologist and had spent winters with the Eskimo of northern Canada. After only a month of travel, the largest of his three ships was stuck in ice and soon crushed in a storm, together with half the supplies for the expedition. Stefansson and a small group pushed north using dogsleds and Eskimo hunting techniques; the breakaway party managed to gather scientific observations on much of the Beaufort Sea, discovering five new islands, and remapping many of the coastlines. Reunited with the rest of the expedition at Cape Kellett, they continued their polar exploration and data gathering for another three years before returning with a wealth of new information and launching a century of scientific polar expeditions.

After World War II, Asia came once again to prominence in science and scientific expeditions. The same drive to reach the last frontiers of scientific study on Earth pushed a Japanese team to map the fauna and flora of the Nepal Himalaya in 1952–1953. This expedition displayed the dawning international character of scientific expeditions: while all the members of the exploration party were Japanese, the specimens they gathered were sent to specialists around the world for identification and analysis.

While both the Canadian and Japanese expeditions relied on local, traditional methods to survive extreme conditions, new technologies in the second half of the twentieth century were also crucial in allowing expeditions to penetrate previously inaccessible realms. Beginning in the 1950s, underwater submersible devices allowed explorers like Jacques Cousteau to continue the investigation of oceans to a depth and in detail unimaginable fifty years earlier. Similarly, since the early 1960s space exploration based on the fueled rocket and computer controls has defined a new frontier for scientific expeditions.

New Frontiers in Scientific Expeditions

As scientific expeditions move beyond the Earth, specialization of scientific disciplines has culminated in research projects developed and carried out by teams of specialists at home. Projects based on one national style of organization and funding are giving way to cooperative, international ventures in which teams from different countries provide specialized contributions. Yet for all its novelty, space exploration still displays the enduring and unique combination of forces that has characterized scientific expeditions since antiquity: the desire to go beyond the traditional human boundaries and the need to rely on disciplined observation to tame the profusion of information encountered in unknown lands; the tension between the drive for national prestige and the desire to see science, especially scientific travel, as transgressing all political boundaries; and finally, the belief in the unique potential of science to guide the quest for knowledge of the unknown.


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