As Michael Ryan notes on his Paleoblog, today is the anniversary of the day the HMS Challenger set sail in 1872. The expedition spent four years sailing over 69,000 nautical miles charting the depths of the seas. The crew’s discoveries, including the deepest spot on the planet, an immense chain of subaqueous volcanoes, and unexpected diversity, added more evidence to the validity of the theory of evolution and laid the groundwork for one of the other great theories of science, plate tectonics. If you want to know more about the HMS Challenger, I recommend geologist and science writer Richard Corfield’s first rate book, The Silent Landscape.
Corfield mixes journal information from expedition members with details from the scientist’s 20-volume report to tell the tale of the HMS Challenger, what Corfield calls the world’s first sea voyage devoted exclusively to science. As he notes, the journey of the HMS Challenger marked several turning points. It was the last great voyage of the Victorian era. It helped lay to rest “the belief that secular questions can be answered by religion.” It showed that science and the search for knowledge were worthy of government funding and it opened up nearly two-thirds of the planet to exploration that continues to this day. The expedition deserves to be included on the short list of great British voyages, and Corfield does a fine job of showing why.