The Golden Age Lives On

Article excerpt

We're living in the midst of an explosion of scientific discovery. It is a trend that will accelerate in the next millennium, says former RGS-IBG director John Hemming

The oceans cover seven-tenths of planet Earth, and man has started to penetrate them only in recent times. So I would expect marine exploration to continue to amaze us. There are fundamental questions still to be answered. How do the great ocean currents function and how do they affect our climate? What is the role of the oceans, and of plankton in particular, in cleaning atmospheric pollution? Are the animals discovered around hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean really the start of all life and evolutionary processes? Then there is an almost infinite amount to be learned about marine life. For marine biology is still in its prime, and a great many marine biologists are going to have to do a great many more expeditions to learn the answers.

But while exploration of the deep oceans is very expensive, a rich realm of shallow-seas research is open to small expeditions or individuals on modest budgets. This is why the RGS-IBG is so wise to mount the Shoals of Capricorn project in the virtually unstudied shallows of the Indian Ocean.

Oceanographer Robert Ballard is prouder of his scientific discoveries than of finding the wrecks of the Titanic or the Bismarck. For Ballard, science is the key: "Science gives legitimacy and worth to exploration. You see a lot of stunts today, but if you're not doing worthwhile science, you're not an explorer. You're just wandering around."

Ballard's view will be amply fulfilled in the coming decades. There simply isn't much left for the stunt men to do. Soon Richard Branson or Steve Fossett will have ballooned non-stop around the world. There will be few endeavours left for adventurers to do "solo" or "unsupported", and not many "unconquered" whitewater rivers to descend, peaks to climb or caves to explore.

The future of exploration lies with the scientists. However, they must learn about public relations and how to publicise their achievements and make their discoveries more exciting and accessible to laymen. Only then will they woo newspaper and magazine editors away from their obsession with "firsts" and expeditions that get from A to B by some difficult means while contributing nothing worthwhile to science.

In recent years, satellite imagery, global positioning systems, sonar and neutron probes and many other inventions have revolutionised exploration. …