Tag Archives: #exploration

Circumnavigational Wonder

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The world’s first circumnavigation by an aircraft powered only by the sun was just completed this week.

The Solar Impulse 2, created and flown by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, landed in Abu Dhabi after 23 days of flight time – spread over the course of 17 months and 42,438 km (22,915 nmi) of Northern Hemisphere territory.

It’s a strange thing to live in an age when scientific breakthroughs seem so commonplace as to barely merit more than a passing mention before they are lost again in the onslaught of information.

Positive discharge from a wire (1899) - An early electrical discharge visualization based on experiments in electricity by William George Armstrong. Armstrong, inventor, arms dealer, scientist, was an early advocate of solar power.  Image: via Dataisnature

Positive discharge from a wire (1899) – An early electrical discharge visualization based on experiments in electricity by William George Armstrong. Armstrong, inventor, arms dealer, scientist, was an early advocate of solar power.
Image: via Dataisnature

We spend all of a few minutes or a few hours in wonderment before moving on to the next amazing novelty. Time moves more quickly these days than it once did.

I try to imagine the days when even an innovation in clock making and mechanics could provide the discussion of an evening, or longer.

The remarkable clockwork globe here was an innovation in its own time. Its movement was built by Gerhard Emmoser, clockmaker to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was inspired by the words of Philip Melanchthon in contemplation of Plato:

“…the wings of the human mind are arithmetic and geometry…

Carried up to heaven by their help, you will be able to traverse with your eyes the entire nature of things, discern the intervals and boundaries of the greatest bodies, see the fateful meetings of the stars, and then understand the causes of the greatest things that happen in the life of man.”

Celestial Globe with Clockwork (Vienna, 1579), by Gerhard Emmoser.  the globe originally rotated, powered by an internal movement, and an image of the sun moved along the path of the ecliptic. Use of the mythological winged Pegasus to support the celestial sphere conveys a Renaissance idea that “the wings of the human mind” support the science of astronomy. Image/caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Celestial Globe with Clockwork (Vienna, 1579), by Gerhard Emmoser.
the globe originally rotated, powered by an internal movement, and an image of the sun moved along the path of the ecliptic. Use of the mythological winged Pegasus to support the celestial sphere conveys a Renaissance idea that “the wings of the human mind” support the science of astronomy.
Image/caption: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Solar Impulse 2 flight was 15 years in the making. Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg shared piloting duties of a plane equipped with 17,000 solar cells. The undertaking has a dual purpose: To show that it can be done, and to inspire the ongoing pursuit and implementation of renewable energies over fossil fuels.

Exploration, research and innovation aren’t just matters of pushing boundaries of what we already know – they are about dreaming into areas about which we know nothing. The clockwork globe was no doubt inspired not only by the soaring words of Melanchthon, but by ever-growing knowledge of how the world might look from above.

Who wouldn’t want to circle the globe from the comfort of their own drawing room?

Four hundred years passed between the first circumnavigation of the world by water in 1519 (by an expedition initially led by Ferdinand Magellan over three years) and the first aerial circumnavigation in 1924 (by a the United States Army Air Service aviator team over 175 days).

Flight path of the Solar Impulse 2. Source: The Guardian

Flight path of the Solar Impulse 2.
Source: The Guardian

Less than a hundred years passed between that feat and doing the same thing using only the sun as fuel.

We figured out how to harness electricity less than two hundred years ago using water power and coal; transforming sunlight into electricity happened around the same time, but the problem has always been storing that energy for use as needed.

The Solar Impulse 2, like other major achievements in science, engineering and exploration, reminds us that there is always further to go.

Just let that sink in for a few minutes, or a few days.

As Melanchthon wrote, “For I know that you are certainly convinced that the science of celestial things has great dignity and usefulness.”

Words as true now as they were over four hundred years ago.

The Solar Impulse 2. Source: Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse 2.
Source: Solar Impulse

Fragile Horizons

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Source: The Portolan

Source: The Portolan

Created in the first decade of the 1500s, the globe above is made of the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs, and was engraved by someone who was either influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, or worked directly in the workshop of the Renaissance genius. The globe  is the earliest known attempt to depict the Americas, Japan, Brazil and Arabia. It was based on the most cutting-edge knowledge of its time, information gathered from the explorers of the era.

According to The Portolan, the map journal that published a paper on the globe in late 2013, “The globe contains ships of different types, monsters, intertwining waves, a shipwrecked sailor, and  71 place names, and one sentence , “HIC SVNT DRACONES” (Here are the Dragons).

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) Source: Spamula

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)
Source: Spamula

 

Only 7 of the names are in the Western Hemisphere. No names are shown for North America, which is represented as a group of scattered islands; three names are shown in South America.”

This would have represented the height of knowledge about our world, at least from a European perspective. The Dragons represent the very limit of scientific horizons, with tantalizing new unknowns just beyond, waiting to be found.

Our view of the the contours of our world has been changing, in flux from the time we first began exploring our surroundings and then trying to describe and understand them. Our Dragons now lay deeper, farther, higher than ever before, with a great expanse of knowledge still beyond.

Earth Day 2014: My hope is that we keep pushing forward to the horizon, and that the knowledge we gain will include the understanding that for all its complexity, beauty and mystery, our world also shares something else with the ostrich-egg globe of historical wisdom: Fragility.images

 

 

 

Floating Seafloor

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Floating Seafloor
A vast community of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf. Photo: Frank Rack

Glowing ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Photo: Frank Rack

In 2010, a research team for the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) was working off the Ross Ice Shelf, deploying a remote-controlled submersible robot beneath the ice to investigate south pole water currents. A deep hole (850 ft / 259 m) was drilled in the ice, the robot plopped into the water below, and then it happened.

Where the researchers expected to be looking at open water and currents, they found an entirely unexplored ecosystem attached to the underside of the ice.

Anemones, marine worms, amphipods, and a previously unknown creatures simply dubbed ‘the eggroll’. Anemones, which are usually known for burrowing into sand, are not known for living on ice. The entire underside of the ice shelf was inhabited as if it were an upside-down sea floor.

The engineering project had become a different creature itself, a voyage of evolutionary exploration.

It’s an excellent reminder that sometimes the best way to discover the unexpected is to go in search of something else.

Close-up of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside Photo: Frank Rack

Close-up of ice anemones (Edwardsiella andrillae) living on the underside
Photo: Frank Rack

Original study: Daly M, Rack F, Zook R (2013) Edwardsiella andrillae, a New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083476