Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

"Beached!" by James Pergum, based on drawing by Conrad Martens (1834) & engraving by Thomas Landseer (1838) (All Rights Reserved; Used With Permission)
“Beached!” by James Pegrum, based on drawing by Conrad Martens (1834) & engraving by Thomas Landseer (1838) (All Rights Reserved; Used With Permission)

February 12th is the birthday of pioneering biologist Charles Darwin*, who developed and presented the first mechanism to explain evolution that actually worked – namely, natural selection. Today would be Darwin’s 206th birthday, if he wasn’t long dead. Today is a great day to remember not only Darwin’s massive contribution to our understanding of Nature, but also to reflect on the countless people who influenced him, helped expand or develop on his ideas, challenged him, or simply helped carry his bags – for example, spare a thought for the gardener who tended Darwin’s much written about garden. These individuals that simply make things possible surround any discovery, no matter how large or small.

Of chief importance was Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, chronicled in his The Voyage of the Beagle. The magnitude of the task of such a voyage can be well represented in this image of the HMS Beagle beached to repair the keel and copper plating. They just had to get the ship onto the beach in the correct orientation, lean it over to one side, make repairs, lean it over to the other, make more repairs, then get the whole thing back into the water without breaking anything – not in a proper dry dock – but on a beach on the coast of South America. No biggie.

Both for fun and because the effort required to create this is a metaphor for the effort of the HMS Beagle‘s crew, we thought we would show you the scene in Legos. Lego builder James Pegrum recreated a scene originally drawn by Conrad Martens, who was also traveling on the HMS Beagle as their artist-in-residence, and later engraved by Thomas Landseer. If you want to build your own HMS Beagle, you should consider voting to support Luis Peña’s Lego Ideas HMS Beagle project.

*There is an effort to get February 12th officially recognized as “Darwin Day”. While I am all for this concept in principle, one of the major supporters of this effort has been the American Humanist Association. They run “darwinday.org” and have pushed for Congressional resolutions to recognize Darwin Day. They, however, also named Lawrence Krauss as their 2015 Humanist of the Year, ignoring Krauss’ history of support for his buddy Jeffrey Epstein, who happens to be a convicted pimp and pedophile. So, I’m sticking with “Happy Birthday, Charles!”

HT for “Beached!”: The Brothers Brick

Galapagos Islands

ADid you figure out the answers to last week’s quiz? They’re all the way at the bottom of this post, but I’m sure you figured out that answer A was the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands were formed more than 8 million years ago, and thanks to ongoing volcanic activity, some of the islands are still growing.

After the islands were formed, species (plants, spores, animals) would occasionally arrive here from the mainland, but because they were now in a completely different ecosystem, they evolved differently – for example, small turtles were able to grow into very big turtles.

1024px-Darwin's_finches_by_GouldWe understand this now, but Darwin had to figure all of that out for himself when he first visited the Galapagos. He did, eventually, but it took him a while to put all the pieces together. One thing he did notice when he visited the islands were the birds.

He recognized that the finches were different between different islands, but at the time Darwin thought that they were different birds. Only after Darwin analysed the animals they collected, upon the Beagle’s return, did he realise that they were all the same bird, with local variations generated on each island.

Darwin’s finches became a famous example of evolution. They’re the finches that The Finch and Pea are (half-)named after, and they’re the finches that my work uses as mascot for certain things (here’s one!). Seriously, I can’t seem to get away from those birds!

The Galapagos are still a place where biologists come to study nature. In fact, there is a research foundation, the Charles Darwin Foundation, based on one of the islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station is at risk of closing and is in desperate need of financial support to stay solvent.

Earlier this year, they launched a project in collaboration with Google, which use Google streetview images to let people explore the Galapagos from home and record any species they view in the images.

First I didn’t find much more than cool plants…


…but then I looked somewhere else and found a blue-footed booby!


Have fun exploring the Galapagos. And as promised, here are the results from last week’s quiz:
Continue reading “Galapagos Islands”

Darwin’s Manuscripts

UPDATE 2014-11-25 6:28AM (ET): Grant Young, Head of Digital Content at Cambridge University Library commented to let us know where the Darwin manuscripts stand legally. The unpublished manuscripts remain under copyright to the Darwin Estate until 2039. As Young notes in his comment below, Cambridge University Library is actively working to reduce the copyright period on unpublished works and prefers to release documents as openly as possible. The original post has been modified with the elements that are no longer applicable having been struck out.

The Cambridge Digital Library has simulataneously done a thing that is very cool thing and thing that is a bit uncool. They have digitized and made available online over 30,000 Charles Darwin manuscripts from 1835-1882. That is a very cool thing to do.

The Charles Darwin Papers in the Manuscripts Department of Cambridge University Library hold nearly the entire extant collection of Darwin’s working scientific papers. Paramount among these documents are Charles Darwin’s Evolution Manuscripts, which are being published online at the Cambridge Digital Library and simultaneously at the Darwin Manuscripts Project in collaboration with the Darwin Correspondence Project. This is a conceptually coherent set of over 30,000 digitised and edited manuscript pages, spanning 1835-1882.
Cambridge Digital Library

Continue reading “Darwin’s Manuscripts”

Sunday Science Poem: Science and doubt on the naked shingles of the world

Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’

Dover BeachFor at least a millennium in the West, Christianity was the dominant public perspective on how the world operates. That is no longer true. In our culture, science now explains the world.

Despite widespread private expressions of piety, in our public culture science is what we believe. Intelligent design, fad diets, ESP, or any other ideas that make a go at competing on science’s materialistic home turf all end up measured by science’s standard. This is why pseudo-science exists: you have to dress your ideas in a lab coat and protective eyewear if you want other people to believe your ideas about the physical world. That was not true when Victoria inherited the British throne in 1838, but it was largely true when she died in 1901. This was the result of a tectonic shift in the psychology of an entire society, and Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ captures the mental anguish of that shift. Continue reading “Sunday Science Poem: Science and doubt on the naked shingles of the world”

Duly noted, Charles. Duly noted.

But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much – Charles Darwin

From The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 2: 1837-1843 via Maria Popova.

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