Monday, April 5, 2021

A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, edited by Sir John F. W. Herschel

Data collection handbook for explorers
While the British Royal Navy’s primary function was military, it also made great strides in the scientific exploration of the globe. The expeditions of Captain Cook and the voyage of the HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin served as ship’s naturalist, are just the best known examples of scientifically productive voyages sponsored by the Admiralty. To further its research agenda, the Royal Navy published A Manual of Scientific Enquiry in 1851. This era is often considered the age of Humboldtian science because of the standard set by the meticulous data-gathering methods of Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The Royal Navy’s Manual is an instruction guide on scientific intelligence gathering for physicians, naturalists, geographers, and other scientifically minded sailors voyaging abroad or stationed in exotic foreign ports.

The list of contributors in the table of contents reads like a who’s who of the British scientific community in the mid-nineteenth century. The Manual is edited by the distinguished polymath Sir John Herschel (his dad discovered Uranus), who also contributes the chapter on meteorology. Charles Darwin delivers the chapter on geology (He studied geology extensively before making his indelible mark in biology), while the outstanding naturalist Richard Owen handles zoology. William Hooker, director of the Kew Gardens, writes on botany, and George Biddell Airy, the then-current Astronomer Royal, covers his celestial area of expertise.

Each contributor takes a different approach to his subject. Some chapters are little more than wishlists of data these scientists would like naval officers to gather towards solving unanswered research questions. Other chapters go into great detail on how to take precise measurements with very complex instruments, and in some cases how to first construct those instruments. The book contains very few illustrations, so it’s often hard for today’s reader to imagine what a barometer, thermometer, or actinometer might have looked like in 1851. The chapters on botany and zoology give detailed instructions on how explorers should preserve specimens of plants and animals in the field. In the latter case the processes can be quite disgusting and surprisingly toxic. Darwin’s chapter is supposed to be on geography, but his wide range of interests veers off into various digressions from dredging up coral samples to inspecting the stomach contents of seabirds. Some authors assume a certain level of prior knowledge in their given disciplines, particularly those dealing with the nautical sciences. Others are more novice-friendly, such as Sir Henry De la Beche, whose chapter on mineralogy provides a helpful introduction to the discipline.

After reading this manual, the reader walks away with a newfound respect for the sailors of old. The audience for this book were no common seabound laborers. Readers were expected to be well-versed in all aspects of celestial navigation, surveying, and mathematics. Most readers of today, who can get their GPS coordinates off of Google Earth, will find the chapter on terrestrial magnetism hopelessly confusing and unintelligible. Taking accurate measurements with the difficult and delicate instruments of the era required a great deal of patience and skill. It may have taken five steps just to get a reading off of a thermometer, and often one had to run one’s numbers through a complex equation to get the desired result. From reading this book, one would think that British sailors had nothing better to do than take readings and keep tabular journals all day and night, which hardly seems believable. Perhaps the scientists who wrote the manual had unrealistic expectations of their audience? Nevertheless, the exploratory vessels of the Royal Navy made great strides in our understanding of the world’s natural environment and the people who inhabit it. This book gives the armchair explorer an educational glimpse into the scientific work of these intrepid explorers and a renewed admiration for their accomplishments.

Table of contents
Astronomy by Sir George Biddell Airy
Magnetism by Sir Edward Sabine
Hydrography by Captain Frederick William Beechey
Tides by Rev. Dr. William Whewell
Geography by William John Hamilton
Geology by Charles Darwin
Earthquake Phenomena by Robert Mallet
Mineralogy by Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche
Meteorology by Sir John F. W. Herschel
Atmospheric Waves by William Radcliffe Birt
Zoology by Sir Richard Owen
Botany by Sir William Jackson Hooker
Ethnology by James Cowles Prichard
Medicine and Medical Statistics by Dr. Alexander Bryson
Statistics by George Richardson Porter

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