In this special issue on travel, we hark back to that spirit, the idea of a voyage made not for leisure, but for the sake of science, and narratives that mix sense of place with a sense of discovery
In the spring of 1848, naturalist Henry Walter Bates, then 23, set off on a small trading vessel from Liverpool, England. The vessel would take him down the Irish Channel to the Equator, first to the town of Salinópolis, on the northern coast of Brazil, and then to Belém,“the only port of entry to the vast region watered by the Amazons".
Bates, along with a fellow naturalist, A.R. Wallace, had decided to sail to the largest river on Earth to “solve the problem of origin of species". Both Bates and Wallace were inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and wanted to add to the body of evidence supporting it. Bates would spend the next 11 years exploring the Amazon basin and bring back a phenomenal collection of specimens representing 14,712 species, 8,000 of which the world had not known about. In 1863, he published his discoveries in The Naturalist On The River Amazons, a classic. His account was a major addition to the body of knowledge that existed about the Amazon—no one before him had travelled this extensively—but as Darwin pointed out in his “appreciation" for the book, Bates had not confined his account merely to entomological discoveries, but supplied “a general outline of his adventures during his journeyings up and down the mighty river, and a variety of information concerning every object of interest, whether physical or political, that he met with by the way".
Darwin himself was no stranger to this sort of writing. Seventeen years before Bates boarded his vessel at Liverpool, Darwin had set out on the HMS Beagle, a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles Of Geology in his pocket. This voyage, now famous as the Beagle Expedition, was a hydrographic survey along the coasts of South America, and his findings from this trip would lay the foundation for his later work on natural selection. Upon return, he published The Voyage Of The Beagle (1839), an account as richly redolent of place as it was scientific, and it established Darwin as a writer of renown.
Bates and Darwin were part of a long tradition of journaling by men who had embarked on scientific quests. In fact, ever since Carl Linnaeus published his book Systema Naturae (The System Of Nature, 1735), the precursor to modern botany, and his disciples spread to all corners of the world to gather specimens of the natural world, there have been many books, beginning with “A brief narrative of travels to" and “A voyage to the" by scientists who have taken to the high seas. Some of history’s most famous voyages—for instance, James Cook’s to the South Seas—were undertaken at the behest of scientists.
In this special issue on travel, we hark back to that spirit, the idea of a voyage made not for leisure, but for the sake of science, and narratives that mix sense of place with a sense of discovery. We travel to the Antarctic Ocean with navigator Siddharth Chakravarty as he combines an expedition to tackle illegal fishing with a study of plastic ingestion by marine life; we peek at nature photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee’s field notes from Siberia, where he is capturing rarely observed sub-aquatic life of the Polar region; we follow author and chemist Pranay Lal to Jharkhand as he finds traces of the last ice age; and we go “dezzing" with environmentalist Pradip Krishen to find clonal forests and missing pieces of time. In Hawaii, an ecologist shows us how traditional systems of aquaculture are being revived, and in the blue hills of Udhagamandalam, we meet scientists who run a cosmic-ray observatory. These are the new explorers; consider this issue a limited membership to the club.
The rush of scientific expeditions in the 18th and 19th centuries also created—well, the original “old boys’ club". Men such as Joseph Banks, the naturalist behind Cook’s voyage, were imperialists to the core. To examine this aspect of science and travel, we visit the Royal Geographical Society in London, historically a cosy den for men of science who wanted nothing more than to colonize the farthest corners of the world. We look to the future as well—at ourselves, in fact—and wonder if the advent of space travel will be any different from the explorations of the past. And we ask the one Indian who should know—Rakesh Sharma, our first man in space—what he thinks has changed.