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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Voyage of the Beagle

Time for a short break. In Chapter 3 of uncopyrighted Voyage of the Beagle, we find Charles Darwin off the eastern coast of South America.

In our passage to the Plata, we saw nothing particular, excepting on one day a great shoal of porpoises, many hundreds in number. The whole sea was in places furrowed by them; and a most extraordinary spectacle was presented, as hundreds, proceeding together by jumps, in which their whole bodies were exposed, thus cut the water. When the ship was running nine knots an hour, these animals could cross and recross the bows with the greatest of ease, and then dash away right ahead. As soon as we entered the estuary of the Plata, the weather was very unsettled. One dark night we were surrounded by numerous seals and penguins, which made such strange noises, that the officer on watch reported he could hear the cattle bellowing on shore. On a second night we witnessed a splendid scene of natural fireworks; the mast-head and yard-arm-ends shone with St. Elmo's light; and the form of the vane could almost be traced, as if it had been rubbed with phosphorus. The sea was so highly luminous, that the tracks of the penguins were marked by a fiery wake, and the darkness of the sky was momentarily illuminated by the most vivid lightning.

When within the mouth of the river, I was interested by observing how slowly the waters of the sea and river mixed. The latter, muddy and discoloured, from its less specific gravity, floated on the surface of the salt water. This was curiously exhibited in the wake of the vessel, where a line of blue water was seen mingling in little eddies, with the adjoining fluid.
And I find this interesting:

In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been. At one house a young woman, who was ill in bed, sent to entreat me to come and show her the compass. If their surprise was great, mine was greater, to find such ignorance among people who possessed their thousands of cattle, and "estancias" of great extent. It can only be accounted for by the circumstance that this retired part of the country is seldom visited by foreigners. I was asked whether the earth or sun moved; whether it was hotter or colder to the north; where Spain was, and many other such questions. The greater number of the inhabitants had an indistinct idea that England, London, and North America, were different names for the same place; but the better informed well knew that London and North America were separate countries close together, and that England was a large town in London!
Keep in mind these were not indigenous people, but from European civilization. People will one day look on everyone from our era (at least those who grew up without the Internet) as amazingly ignorant in many ways.

During our stay at Maldonado I collected several quadrupeds, eighty kinds of birds, and many reptiles, including nine species of snakes. Of the indigenous mammalia, the only one now left of any size, which is common, is the Cervus campestris. This deer is exceedingly abundant, often in small herds, throughout the countries bordering the Plata and in Northern Patagonia. If a person crawling close along the ground, slowly advances towards a herd, the deer frequently, out of curiosity, approach to reconnoitre him. I have by this means, killed from one spot, three out of the same herd. Although so tame and inquisitive, yet when approached on horseback, they are exceedingly wary. In this country nobody goes on foot, and the deer knows man as its enemy only when he is mounted and armed with the bolas. At Bahia Blanca, a recent establishment in Northern Patagonia, I was surprised to find how little the deer cared for the noise of a gun: one day I fired ten times from within eighty yards at one animal; and it was much more startled at the ball cutting up the ground than at the report of the rifle. My powder being exhausted, I was obliged to get up (to my shame as a sportsman be it spoken, though well able to kill birds on the wing) and halloo till the deer ran away.
Darwin then goes on to describe a large number of Patagonian animals in amazing detail.

And then there are fulgurites:

In a broad band of sand-hillocks which separate the Laguna del Potrero from the shores of the Plata, at the distance of a few miles from Maldonado, I found a group of those vitrified, siliceous tubes, which are formed by lightning entering loose sand. These tubes resemble in every particular those from Drigg in Cumberland, described in the Geological Transactions. [10] The sand-hillocks of Maldonado not being protected by vegetation, are constantly changing their position. From this cause the tubes projected above the surface, and numerous fragments lying near, showed that they had formerly been buried to a greater depth. Four sets entered the sand perpendicularly: by working with my hands I traced one of them two feet deep.... A small fragment examined under the microscope appeared, from the number of minute entangled air or perhaps steam bubbles, like an assay fused before the blowpipe. The sand is entirely, or in greater part, siliceous; but some points are of a black colour, and from their glossy surface possess a metallic lustre. The thickness of the wall of the tube varies from a thirtieth to a twentieth of an inch, and occasionally even equals a tenth. On the outside the grains of sand are rounded, and have a slightly glazed appearance: I could not distinguish any signs of crystallization. In a similar manner to that described in the Geological Transactions, the tubes are generally compressed, and have deep longitudinal furrows, so as closely to resemble a shrivelled vegetable stalk, or the bark of the elm or cork tree. Their circumference is about two inches, but in some fragments, which are cylindrical and without any furrows, it is as much as four inches. The compression from the surrounding loose sand, acting while the tube was still softened from the effects of the intense heat, has evidently caused the creases or furrows. Judging from the uncompressed fragments, the measure or bore of the lightning (if such a term may be used) must have been about one inch and a quarter. At Paris, M. Hachette and M. Beudant [11] succeeded in making tubes, in most respects similar to these fulgurites, by passing very strong shocks of galvanism through finely-powdered glass: when salt was added, so as to increase its fusibility, the tubes were larger in every dimension....
[10] Geolog. Transact. vol. ii. p. 528. In the Philosoph. Transact. (1790, p. 294) Dr. Priestly has described some imperfect siliceous tubes and a melted pebble of quartz, found in digging into the ground, under a tree, where a man had been killed by lightning.

[11] Annals de Chimie et de Physique, tom. xxxvii. p. 319.

If Darwin was alive today, would he be able to get published in any academic journals or would his methods be considered too subjective and sentimental?

Of course you can't be a scientific pioneer without considering a lot of hypotheses that turn out to be wrong:

I am inclined to suspect that thunderstorms are very common near the mouths of great rivers. Is it not possible that the mixture of large bodies of fresh and salt water may disturb the electrical equilibrium?

The mouths of great rivers are often in regions with great rainfall and the weather of those regions often include lots of thunderstorms.

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