Posted by: cousindampier | 31 March 2010

The (old) state and science

For approximately three hundred years, from 1500 to 1800, the various states of Europe sought out geographical knowledge. Given the then-recent discovery by Columbus in 1492, this is no surprise; the extents to which European states went to hide their discovery from others is the astonishing part.

For much of recorded European history, the Mediterranean – ‘middle earth sea’ – was the center of the world, with the vast and mysterious lands of Asia just beyond, though nobody really understood how far beyond. Mapmaking was largely done with a heavy dose of imagination and it followed logic of the day – which didn’t always make sense. For example, according to the Greeks, the equatorial area was imagined to be a region of fire, and to cross it would be to burst into flames.

Maps of the age were highlighted with the most fantastic demons and monsters in lands nobody had lived and travelled through. If maps were lacking that, then they were outright imaginative in the existence of land.

Due to this lack of knowledge, and with a focus on the presumed riches the New World contained, knowledge of where the ocean ended and land began, as well as the type of people who inhabited a land and what the land contained, became state secrets.

Abel Tasman’s voyage around Australia was hidden for years, only hints of it escaping from the Dutch government. Frances Drake’s voyage around the world, according to author Samuel Bawlf, was probably a mask for a search for the northwest passage, which England never admitted to (the records are destroyed now), but evidence suggests he discovered Victoria Island, and the islands north of it, on the Canadian coast.

If not kept hidden, the inability to calculate longitude meant some islands were outright lost. The Solomon Islands were found and lost a number of times. Most of the islands of the South Pacific were found at one point or another, with hazy descriptions taken along by later navigators to use as a reference, in case they were re-discovered.

All this led to a rush to find new riches and quicker sailing routes. The two big mysteries – the holy grails of exploration – were the Northwest Passage and the Great South Land . . James Cook was the navigator who would disprove both of these legends. He circumnavigated the world at a high southern longitude during his second voyage and never hit any land (only icebergs). During his third voyage, he spent it at high northern latitudes in the Gulf of Alaska, looking for the Northwest Passage.

Before Cook, the British had more or less undertaken a quest to accurately map the world. William Dampier led the first voyage sponsored by the Admiralty in 1699 (though he was a poor leader of men, he made great contributions to all fields of exploration, pre-dating Cook in many of his observations and assumptions about the world). From then on, most British expeditions were simultaneously about finding new lands to colonize and exploit, while also accurately charting land and sea, recording observations and returning with specimens of species from the lands they found, and otherwise making science a key focus of any voyage.

I write about this because of the incredible ability today to follow all sorts of discoveries. From the molecular level to new planets and exploding stars, a person can log online and find out about nearly anything they want. Science, as a state secret, but the openness and instant ability to learn about any new concept is incredible, especially when placed in this context. In only a few hundred years, really, humankind has gone from a view of Africa as the end of the Earth to the discovery of 32 unknown planets.

Space, I imagine, will be explored in much the same way as the oceans were. NASA is focusing on the private-sector, which will lead spaceflight for the coming generation (and longer). At some point, when humankind has begun to explore new planets and map the areas of space, some government will step in and make knowledge of the space-lanes a key focus of any mission; but at the moment, it is shrouded in mystery and myth, waiting for someone to break it.


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