Finish your summer book list? Mine included Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, translated by H. A. R. Gibb; The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin; and a pair of books by Boston’s most enduring couple, Brad and Barbara Washburn (The Accidental Adventurer: Memoir of the First Woman to Climb Mt. McKinley, by Barbara with Lew Freedman; and Exploring the Unknown: Historic Diaries of Bradford Washburn’s Alaska/Yukon Expeditions, edited by Lew Freedman).The pattern is obvious. Burning with wanderlust, having O.D.ed on in-flight magazines, I’ve gone to the sources in search of a fix.
This may seem odd. For the last decade, I’ve schlepped around the world, visiting all 50 states, about half the world’s countries and every continent but Antarctica. One might think I’d long for homey books by Bob Vila or Martha Stewart. Instead, I am following the footsteps of many other curiosity seekers. And since science is essentially a curiosity-seeking business, it isn’t surprising that so many scientists have wandered out of the laboratory and into faraway places. The jarring experiences you get on an ambitious trip are a spur for new ideas. Many a creative work, whether in science or the arts, begins with a boondoggle.
Alexander Graham Bell was an early president of the National Geographic Society. Yale professor Hiram Bingham used to salivate over the blank spots in the map (there still were some in the 1920s). He could have been the real-life model of Indiana Jones: on one typical quest in 1911 into the jungles of Peru he stumbled upon the lost city of Machu Picchu. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman fixated on Tannu Tuva. Murray Gell-Mann, another Nobel physicist, seems to have been everywhere. Ask him about Bhutan. He may reply in Dzongka.
Darwin’s five-year, round-the-world voyage on the Beagle is the sort of intellectual and geographical epic that scientific legends are made of. Three years into the journey, green and puking with seasickness nearly every day, he reached the Galpagos Islands, about 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador. There he saw with his own eyes a startling pencil sketch of evolution in action. It blew his mind. But think about this: if Darwin hadn’t gone, he most likely would have wound up as a career pastor. Charles Darwin: a creationist?
A friend of mine was an MIT student of strobe light inventor Doc Edgerton, who dragged him to the Bahamas and the Scottish highlands, ostensibly to try underwater gadgets in search of Atlantis and the Loch Ness monster. Now, I had assumed that Atlantis was on Santorini in Greece (site of the largest volcanic explosion known on earth), not the Bahamas, and that Nessie-spotting could only be done after a thorough tour of regional single malts. But on those trips, they debugged things like sonar, hydrophones and Doc’s underwater cameras. Anyone who has taken a picture with a Nikonos owes a debt of gratitude to intrepid souls like Edgerton and his dive buddy Jacques Cousteau. Their cameras were worth far more than the sea monsters they never saw.