In which the blogger reviews a very good book and ultimately wanders off to join the American Miscellaneous Society.
. . . the first great voyage of scientific exploration, sent out with no other purpose than the acquisition of knowledge. It was a milestone in the history of humanity, when the importance of learning for its own sake was perceived, not just by a small intellectual elite, but by ordinary people as well.” (The Silent Landscape: The Scientific Voyage of HMS Challenger, 2003, p. 252 – 253.)
The Silent Landscape is Corfield’s fascinating, well told account of the voyage, but it is much more than that. It’s also an accessible exploration of the scientific meaning of the voyage, covering an expansive range of scientific topics of fundamental importance for us today, including climate change, plate tectonics, and evolution. (Though the book was published a decade ago, I've only just discovered it.)
To get a flavor of what it was like to serve on the Challenger, I am currently reading the collected letters of one of the Challenger seamen, Joseph Matkin, the ship's steward's assistant. (At Sea with the Scientifics: The Challenger Letters of Joseph Matkin, edited by Philip R. Rehbock, 1992.). It's a rare glimpse below decks. Matkin makes clear the impact that the scientific nature of the voyage had on life at sea. In a letter dated March 16, 1873, describing the crossing of the Atlantic, Matkin wrote, "We are 17 days from Teneriffe [Tenerife in the Canary Islands] today & expect to be there [St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands] in about 12 more days for we furl sails every day for 8 or 9 hours, & dredge, & take soundings &c which of course makes the journey much longer, & tedious."
Small ship, years at sea, not sailing to reach port, little sense of the big picture, no wonder fully a fourth of the crew deserted the Challenger during this voyage. No one said doing science had to be comfortable or endlessly exciting.
Although it has a clear connection to scientific work prompted by the Challenger exploration, AMSOC is a definite diversion for this review. In some ways, it's a counterpoint to the dreary nature of much of the back breaking work that went on during that scientific voyage of discovery. AMSOC is clever men of science having serious fun. I love it.
Any scientist who has business with ONR’s Geophysics Branch is likely to claim membership in the American Miscellaneous Society since there are no official membership rolls. In fact, there are no bylaws, officers, publications or formal meetings. Nor are there any dues, for funds are a source of controversy. The membership is largely composed of university professors or scientific researchers but the rumor that only persons can be admitted whose research proposals to ONR have been turned down because they are too far-fetched is completely false – it is merely a coincidence. (Willard Bascom, as quoted in Albatross Award of the American Miscellaneous Society, Scripps Institution Of Oceanography Archives.)
[Later edit: Rereading the few sources out there about AMSOC and the confused passages I've written about it, I realize that I really don't know what it was - a joke that, for a moment (Project Mohole), became serious; an effort by a group of research scientists to actually "get things done" that was able to fly under the bureaucratic radar because of its cover of humor; or something else entirely.]