Saturday, February 17, 2007

Two-fisted Science!

OK, to tide people over while I try and finish Why Darwin Matters and deliver that promised double-review, here's a little something.

I attended first aid training at work this past week, and the instructor showed us a video on hypothermia, featuring Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor at the University of Manitoba who is one of the leading experts on the topic. Mainly because, he experiments on himself! In this video we watched him ski into an icy lake to demonstrate the effects of hypothermia on the human body. What balls! Then he did it again, only this time on a snowmobile.

This reminded me of some of the scientific pioneers of past century, people with the courage and resolve to pursue their science with passion, heedless of danger.

First, there was Auguste Piccard, Swiss physicist, explorer and inventor. In the 1930s, Piccard developed an interest in ballooning, and built a series of pressurized gondolas that allowed him to explore the stratosphere. He set several altitude records, then retired from ballooning--to pursue deep-sea diving! Adopting several of the principles used in building his balloon gondolas to submersibles, he set several deep sea diving records as well, notably in the Bathyscaphe Trieste. He sold the Trieste to the US Navy , and soon afterwards his son Jacques and a Navy officer set the record for deepest dive, 10,900 m in the Challenger Depth, the deepest part of the ocean. No vessel has matched or beat this record, and nothing currently exists that could.

Piccard's whole family were scientist-adventurers: his twin brother Jean Felix was an organic chemist and balloonist, and Jean Felix's wife Jeannette was the first woman to hold a balloonist's licence, set altitude records for a woman that held for three decades, and was one of the first 11 women to be ordained Episcopalian priests. Auguste Piccard is believed to have been the inspiration for Professor Cuthbert Calculus/Professeur Tryphon Tournesol from The Adventures of Tintin and August and Jean Felix were believed to be a big inspiration to Gene Roddenberry for the character of Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Next, Hiram Bingham III, a pilot and archaeologist who was probably the inspiration for Indiana Jones. The son and grandson of missionaries to Hawaii, Bingham also served as a US Congressman and Senator and was the shortest serving Governor in Connecticut history (one day). His most noteworthy act, however, was discovering the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu centuries after the European colonization of Peru.

His son Hiram Bingham IV, a diplomat during World War II, was later discovered to have helped many authors, artists and scholars escape German-occupied France, and protected Jews during this time, also arranged forged documents for those trying to make their way through Europe to a place of safety during the Holocaust.

Story Musgrave is a man with considerable credentials and is perhaps the most experienced astronaut ever to fly into space. Musgrave served as a pilot and electrical technician in the US Marine Corps, and was later tapped by NASA to become an astronaut. He became NASA's most experience astronaut, having flown more shuttle missions than anyone else, and is the only astronaut to have flown on all five shuttles. Believe me, this is a very condensed version of Musgrave's storied (ahem) career.

And while doing all this, he found the time to earn six degrees, including:

  • Bachelor of Science in mathematics and statistics (Syracuse University 1958)

  • MBA in operations analysis and computer programming (UCLA 1959)

  • BA in chemistry (Marietta College 1960)

  • MD (Columbia University 1964)

  • Masters of Science in physiology and biophysics (University of Kentucky 1966)

  • MA in literature (University of Houston 1987)

The last one seems out of place, eh? Musgrave claims he got a lit degree so he could properly express what space is like in literary language. This guy is just awesome.

Dian Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist, spent years in Rwanda studying gorillas as one of "Leakey's Angels". The paleontologist Louis Leakey sent three female researchers to study primates in their native habitats: Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees; Fossey, gorillas; and Biruté Galdikas, the orangutans.

Fossey gained the trust of the animals and gained worldwide celebrity when her picture was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine. She fought tirelessly against the extinction of the gorillas, and opposed poachers and zoos with equal vengeance. She even fought the notion of tourists visiting the gorillas in the habitat. It is believed that her brutal murder was motivated by elements of the Rwandan government who wanted to use the gorillas to attract tourists.

Her story was turned into the Oscar-nominated film Gorillas in the Mist, starring one of my favourite actresses, Sigourney Weaver as Fossey.

Speaking of Leakey, he is known for having said: "Nothing I've ever found has contradicted the Bible. It's people with their finite minds who misread the Bible."

Which should hopefully segue us into Darwin yet again.