The National Geographic Society Celebrates 125 Years Of Scientific Exploration
Jedidiah Becker for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
This Sunday, The National Geographic Society will celebrate 125 years of intrepid exploration, pioneering science journalism and dazzling photography. If you´re like us, you can scarcely hear the name “National Geographic” without immediately calling to mind a vision of the magazine´s iconic yellow border framing some breathtaking image or hearing Elmer Bernstein´s rousing fanfare ringing triumphantly in your ear. But the organization hardly began its journey with this wealth of cultural currency.
Less than a year after a small group of scientists and wealthy travel enthusiasts formally banded together in Washington, D.C. on a frigid January afternoon in 1888, the 33-member National Geographic Society (NGS) published the first issue of a monthly periodical that would forever change the relationship between the scientific community and the general public. Though originally conceived as a scientific journal, the NGS´s flagship publication made the transition to a more popular, magazine-like format in 1905 when they began printing captivating full-page images of faraway lands. The rest, as they say, is history.
In an age when print publications around the world are collapsing in the face of the digital-media revolution, the original National Geographic Magazine still boasts a global readership of over 8 million in 36 different languages — and that doesn´t include their online-only subscriptions. The organization also publishes six other periodicals including National Geographic Kids, National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Explorer. And in addition to the Nat Geo Channel and their online news site, NGS has also had their hands in the production of a number of films such as the award-winning March of the Penguins (2006) and Arctic Tale (2007).
In light of these successes, it seems fairly uncontroversial to state that the National Geographic Society has met and far exceeded its original mission “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting the conservation of the world’s cultural, historical, and natural resources.” Yet in the face of its tremendous achievements in an array of media formats and business ventures, the organization has never lost sight of the researchers themselves — those individual explorers who often work behind the scenes to push forward the frontiers of scientific knowledge and our understanding of the world.
One of the many ways that NGS has stayed connected with the research community is through its Emerging Explorers Program, which was designed to promote exceptionally gifted young scientists and visionaries involved in cutting-edge, often outside-the-box research and creative projects. Each year, the organization selects a handful of “inspiring young adventurers, scientists, photographers, and storytellers” from a list of anonymously nominated candidates and awards them $10,000 for the advancement of their exploration.
In tribute to the National Geographic Society´s 125 years of promoting scientific exploration, redOrbit would like to spotlight the projects of two of this year´s Emerging Explorers that we thought our readers would find particularly interesting.
Ever since Homo sapiens first appeared on the evolutionary scene some 200,000 years ago, our species has had an ambivalent relationship with its technology. Whether a spear, a plow, a rifle or a smartphone, our gadgets have served as extensions of our bodies that have changed our relationships with both our environment and our fellow humans. In an age in which the diversity and ubiquity of our technology seems to be growing at a dizzying pace, more and more people find themselves questioning how our relationship with these devices will change us, both in terms of our values and behaviors.
These are the broad issues that the nascent field of cyborg anthropology seeks to address, says 2012 Emerging Explorer Amber Case. As perhaps the most obvious example of the growing symbiosis between humans and technology and the effects that it can have on us, Case suggests we look no further than the cell phone. “Cell phones have become like miniature children. If they cry, we pick them up; we plug them into the wall and feed them; when they’re lost, we panic. Some people even say their state of mind is linked to how fast their Internet connection is — if it’s slow, they feel groggy.”
Yet while countless doom-and-gloom technophobes have been quick to point to the dehumanizing and isolating effects of modern technology, Case says that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the bond between humanity and its complex creations. In fact, Case says that our modern technologies can actually bring us closer together, make us more real, and thereby “amplify our humanness.”
“When television first came out, everything was so perfect, scripted, and carefully produced it was like a superhuman version of humanity that could make you feel inferior,” says Case. “Today, the Internet is filled with reality. Any average-looking guy can turn on a webcam, dance to a song, and put it online. Long ago, people would have laughed at that, but now the whole world dances along. We’re sharing with each other, human-to-human, in a very real way. We’re no longer limited by the geography of where we live and who we know. Supportive, interactive communities spring up online based on common interests. So I think instead of pushing people apart or turning them into machines, really good technology helps us all be more human and connect with each other as we never could before.”
In addition to exploring the effects of existing technologies, Case is also keen on understanding those technologies that have not yet appeared. And she believes that one of the best ways to make way for future technological advances is to study the breakthroughs of the past. In fact, she says, many of the technologies that are popular today — like the iPad or smartphones — were actually conceived by visionaries decades ago.
“In many ways, concepts that can drive the future have already been around for 30 or 40 years,” Case explains. “Now they need to be applied in ways that are accessible and well-designed enough for public consumption.” But the devil is in the details, and the true benefits of technology lie not only in the original idea but in how well we are able to apply and integrate these technologies into our daily lives. And the main thing, she believes, is for technology to increasingly allow humans to be more human. “Computers should do repetitive processes; they should be the ones vacuuming floors. Humans should spend time doing what only they can do — thinking and synthesizing.”
In understanding the past, present and future of the relationship between humans and technology, Case has adopted the view of the modern computer trailblazer Mark Weiser who believed that our technologies should be our quiet, invisible servants — a sort of unobtrusive extension of our subconscious. According to Weiser, optimal technology “should be invisible, get out of your way, and let you live your life.” In other words, says Case, our technology needs to become ever simpler and more intuitive. “We shouldn’t have to fiddle with interfaces. We should be humans; machines should be machines; each amplifying the best of both. Wouldn’t that make for a nice reality?”
In nature, sociability is the norm, and organisms that like to fly solo are the exception to the rule. Bees swarm, fish school, birds flock and ants colonize. Mother Nature knows that there is power in collective social behavior, and Emerging Explorer Iain Couzin wants to tap into that power in order to understand how it works and how humans might benefit from it.
In particular, Couzin is interested in exploring how the collective behavior of animals can be quantified and analyzed using a mixture of fieldwork, laboratory analysis, computer simulations and complex mathematical models. The goal is to understand how and why organisms — from the simplest to the most complex — organize themselves and work together to achieve goals.
“We’re realizing that animals have highly coordinated social systems and make decisions together. They can do things collectively that no individual could do alone,” explains Couzin. “It’s still a very unexplored area of animal behavior.”
Couzin is what one might call a ℠tinkerer savant´. Though he never received formal training in higher-level math, computer science or engineering, he recognized how invaluable these tools can be and so he largely taught them to himself. He now deconstructs video game cards to harness their immense graphics processing power in order to create computer simulations of thousands of animals acting and reacting in real time. The results have yielded amazing new insights into the collective behavioral patterns of a variety of animals.
One very important feature of this behavior that Couzin has observed is that while large groups of organisms — be it herds of buffalo, swarms of locusts or large flocks of migratory birds — may outwardly appear to move in similar types of patterns, they are actually driven by wholly different biological cues.
As a bizarre case-in-point, Couzin cites the behavior of swarming locusts. In years of famine, locusts can cover over a fifth of the world´s land cover, ravaging entire ecosystems in just days or hours. But what drives them to do this? And how do individual locusts within a swarm communicate and coordinate their activities with each other? Couzin initially suspected that they were probably using some kind of visual, audio or biochemical cues to signal one another. His research, however, revealed something far more bizarre.
“When those resources run low, locusts eat each other. All the nutrition they crave is perfectly packaged in the tissue and blood of other locusts. They run away to avoid cannibalization from behind, and run forward to catch and devour those ahead. This triggers the onset of vast swarms, many miles long. Now that we understand the important role of nutrition, we hope to use satellite data and ground-based sensing to understand where protein may be environmentally limited and predict outbreaks in the future.”
Couzin´s work with army ants has been equally revealing, discovering a variety of intricately coordinated behaviors that allow the colony as a whole to act efficiently. He believes that some of these behaviors may even offer lessons for engineers working with modular robotics. “We may be able to mimic what we see in nature to create machines that can dynamically respond and adapt in the face of change, just as the ants spontaneously create robust yet very flexible structures,” Couzin explains. “We’re working with engineers to develop biologically inspired robots that can very effectively search for oil spills, phytoplankton plumes, or other anomalies in the ocean.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Couzin´s work with collective animal behavior is the incredibly broad spectrum of its potential applications. Ant colonies could lead to improved robotic technology. Migrating mammals may help us to understand the growth of cancerous tumors. And schools of fish might teach us how to better organize democracies. We´ve long understood that nature´s designs are elegant and efficient; but the notion that these mechanisms might be retrofitted for entirely different purposes is perhaps one of the most exciting and inspiring ideas in modern science.
“Scientists are realizing how little we know, yet how important it is to gain knowledge about group dynamics,” says Couzin. “Sometimes nature surprises us with solutions more elegant than anything we could imagine. There could be completely unknown applications we haven’t even dreamed of yet.”