The great Library at Alexandria constituted history's greatest accumulation of ancient writings. As we have seen, the characteristics of nations, trade, natural wonders, artistic achievements, tourist sights, investment opportunities, and other items of interest to seafarers were catalogued and filed in its stacks. Manuscripts describing the Mediterranean coast were of great interest.
Traders quickly realized the competitive benefit of this information. Knowledge of where a cargo of olive oil could be sold at the greatest profit, or where the market for finished cloth was most lucrative, or where raw materials for metalworking could be obtained at low cost, was of enormous competitive value. Here perhaps was the first instance of cooperation between a university and the commercial community, a partnership that has paid dividends for science and business ever since.
After their market research was completed, it is not difficult to imagine seafarers lingering at the Library to satisfy their curiosity about non-commercial topics. And there would have been much to learn! In addition to Eratosthenes' discovery of the size of the Earth (about which you read in the chapter), Euclid systematized geometry; the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos argued that Earth is one of the planets and that all planets orbit the sun; Dionysius of Thrace defined and codified the parts of speech (noun, verb, etc.) common to all languages; Herophilus, a physiologist, established the brain was the seat of intelligence; Heron built the first steam engines and gear trains; Archimedes discovered (among many other things) the principles of buoyancy on which successful shipbuilding is based.
The last Librarian was Hypatia, the first notable woman mathematician, philosopher, and scientist. In Alexandria she was a symbol of science and knowledge, concepts the early Christians identified with pagan practices. After years of rising tensions, in 415 A.D. a mob brutally murdered her and burned the Library with all its contents. Most of the community of scholars dispersed and Alexandria ceased to be a center of learning in the ancient world.
The academic loss was incalculable, and trade suffered because ship owners no longer had a clearing house for updating the nautical charts and information upon which they had come to depend. All that remains of the Library today is a remnant of an underground storage room. We shall never know the true extent and influence of its collection of over 700,000 irreplaceable scrolls.
Historians are divided on the reasons for the fall of the Library. But we know there is no record
that any of the Library's scientists ever challenged the political, economic, religious, or social assumptions of their society. Researchers did not attempt to explain or popularize the results of their research, so residents of the city had no understanding of the momentous discoveries being made at the Library at the top of the hill. With very few exceptions, the scientists did not apply their discoveries to the benefit of mankind, and many of the intellectual discoveries had little practical application. The citizens saw no practical value to such an expensive enterprise. Religious strife added elements of hostility and instability. As Carl Sagan pointed out, "When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them."
As for speculations on historical impact had the Library survived, some specialists have suggested that much of the intellectual vacuum of the European Middle Ages might have been "sidestepped," in a sense, if the information processing and dissemination processes centered at the Library had continued. Instead of the subsequent fragmentation and retraction, one wonders if continued academic stimulation might have reinvigorated the West? Also, had the Library lasted longer, one wonders if researchers there might have discovered the intellectual achievements of China, a civilization much advanced at the time.
The ancestors of the Polynesians spread eastward from Southeast Asia or Indonesia in the distant past. Although experts vary in their estimates, there is some consensus that by 30,000 years ago New Guinea was populated by these wanderers and by 20,000 years ago the Philippines were occupied. By around 500 B.C. the so-called cradle of Polynesia -- Tonga, Samoa, the Marquesas and the Society islands -- was settled and the Polynesian cultures formed.
For a long and evidently prosperous period the Polynesians spread from island to island until the easily accessible islands had been colonized. Eventually, however, overpopulation and depletion of resources became a problem. Politics, intertribal tensions, and religious strife shook their society. When tensions reached the breaking point, groups of people scattered in all directions from the Marquesas and Society Islands during a period of explosive dispersion. Between 300 and 600 A.D. Polynesians successfully colonized nearly every inhabitable island within the vast triangular area shown in Figure 2.5. Easter Island was found against prevailing winds and currents, and the remote islands of Hawaii were discovered and occupied. These were among the last places on Earth to be populated.
Large dual-hulled sailing ships, some capable of transporting up to 100 people, were designed and built for the voyages. New navigation techniques were perfected that depended on the positions of stars barely visible to the north. New ways of storing food, water, and seeds were devised. In that anxious time the Polynesians honed and perfected their seafaring knowledge. To a skilled navigator a change in the rhythmic set of waves against the hull could indicate an island out of sight over the horizon. The flight tracks of birds at dusk could suggest the direction of land. The positions of the stars told stories, as did the distant clouds over an unseen island. The smell of the water, or its temperature, or salinity, or color, conveyed information, as did the direction of the wind relative to the sun, and the type of marine life clustering near the boat. The sunrise colors, sunset colors, the hue of the moon -- every nuance had meaning, every detail had been passed in ritual from father to son. The
greatest Polynesian minds were navigators, and reaching Hawaii was their greatest achievement.
There were two main stimuli: (1) encouragement of trade, and (2) military one-upsmanship.
Trade between east and west had long been dependent on arduous and insecure desert caravan
routes through the central Asian and Arabian deserts. This commerce was cut off in 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople. An alternate ocean route was desperately needed. As we have seen, Prince Henry of Portugal thought ocean exploration held the key to great wealth and successful trade. Henry's explorers pushed south into the unknown and opened the West coast of Africa to commerce. He sent out small, maneuverable ships designed for voyages of discovery and manned by well-trained crews.
Christopher Columbus was familiar with Prince Henry's work, and "discovered" the New World quite by accident while on a mission to encourage trade. His intention was to pioneer a sea route to the rich and fabled lands of the east made famous more than 200 years earlier in the overland travels of Marco Polo. As "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," Columbus was to have a financial interest in the trade routes he blazed. As we saw, Columbus never appreciated the fact that he had found a new continent. He went to his grave confident that he had found islands just off the coast of Asia.
Charts that included the properly-identified New World inspired Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain, to believe that he could open a westerly trade route to the Orient. In the Philippines, Magellan was killed and his crew decided to continue sailing west around the world. Only 18 of the original 250 men survived, returning to Spain three years after they set out. But they had proved it was possible to circumnavigate the globe.
The seeds of colonial expansion had been planted. Later, the empires of Spain, Holland, Britain, and France pushed into the distant oceanic reaches in search of lands to claim. Military strength might depend on good charts, knowledge of safe harbors in which to take on provisions, and friendly relations with the locals. Exploration was undertaken to insure these things.
But that gets ahead of the story. The Magellan expedition's return to Spain in 1522 -- the end of the first circumnavigation -- technically marks the end of the first age of European discovery.
The expeditions of Cook, Wilkes, the Rosses, de Bougainville, Wallis, and virtually all other runners-up to HMS Challenger were multi-purpose undertakings: military scouting, flag-waving, provision hunting, and trade analysis were coupled with exploration and scientific research.
The first sailing expedition devoted completely to marine science was conceived Charles Wyville Thomson, a professor of natural history at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, and his Canadian-born student of natural history, John Murray. They convinced the Royal Society and the British Government to provide a Royal Navy ship and trained crew for a "prolonged and arduous voyage of exploration across the oceans of the world." Thomson and Murray even coined a word for their enterprise: Oceanography.
HMS Challenger, the 2,306 ton steam corvette chosen for the expedition, set sail on 7 December 1872 on a four-year voyage that took them around the world and covered 127,600 kilometers (79,300 nautical miles). Although the Captain was a Royal Naval officer, the six-man scientific staff directed the course of the voyage.
The scientists also took salinity, temperature, and water density measurements during these soundings. Each reading contributed to a growing picture of the physical structure of the deep ocean.
They completed at least 151 open water trawls, and stored 77 samples of seawater for detailed analysis ashore. The expedition collected new information on ocean currents, meteorology, and the distribution of sediments; the locations and profiles of coral reefs were charted. Thousands of pounds of specimens were brought to British museums for study. Manganese nodules, brown lumps of mineral-rich sediments, were discovered on the seabed, sparking interest in deep sea mining.
This first pure oceanographic investigation was an unqualified success. The discovery of life in the depths of the oceans stimulated the new science of marine biology. The scope, accuracy, thoroughness, and attractive presentation of the researchers' written reports made this expedition a high point in scientific publication. The Challenger Report, the record of the expedition, was published between 1880 and 1895 by Sir John Murray in a well-written and magnificently illustrated 50-volume set; it is still used today. The Challenger expedition remains history's longest continuous scientific oceanographic expedition.
Individuals and voyages are most prominent in the first half of this century. Captain Robert Falcon Scott's British Antarctic expedition in HMS Discovery (1901-1904) set the stage for the golden age of Antarctic exploration. Roald Amundsen's brilliant assault on the south pole (1911) demonstrated that superb planning and preparation paid great dividends when operating in remote and hazardous locales. The German Meteor expedition, the first "high tech" oceanographic expedition, showed how electronic devices and sophisticated sampling techniques could be adapted to the marine environment. And certainly the individual contributions of people like Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan (inventors in 1943 of the "aqualung," the first scuba device) and Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard (pilots of Trieste to the ocean's deepest point in 1960) are important.
But the undeniable success story of late twentieth century oceanography is the successful rise of the great research institutions with broad state and national funding. Without the cooperation of research universities and the federal government (through agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others), the great strides that were made in the fields of plate tectonics, atmosphere-ocean interaction, biological productivity, and ecological awareness would have been much slower in coming. Along with the Sea Grant Universities (and their equivalents in other countries), establishments like the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, with their powerful array of researchers and research tools, will define the future of oceanography.