Sunday, March 25, 2007

A lost soul of science

No, it's not quite accurate to call Robert Fitzroy a "lost soul." He is remembered well enough, but only as commander of H.M.S. Beagle, the vessel that carried young Charles Darwin around the world on his famous voyage of discovery.

The Beagle left Plymouth, England, on the 27th of December, 1831, with the assigned task of mapping the coast of South America. It was not without some misgivings that Commander Fitzroy welcomed aboard the tag-along naturalist.

Both men were in their twenties, and eager to establish themselves in their respective careers. During the voyage, they enjoyed each other's company and developed a grudging mutual respect, but two more different characters could hardly be imagined.

Fitzroy was the aristocrat, grandson of the 3rd Duke of Grafton and the 1st Marquis of Londonderry, a descendent of the illicit relationship between King Charles II and Barbara Villiers. He was Tory in politics, conservative in religion, brave, restless, uncompromising.

Darwin was a son of the wealthy new middle class created by the Industrial Revolution. His father and grandfather were successful country doctors. The family was Whig and Liberal in politics, foward-looking and adventurous in thought.

As Fitzroy mapped the coast, Darwin observed clues to the Earth's deep past. In the officer's mess, ship's captain and naturalist debated Earth history, Fitzroy taking the traditional view that the planet was created a few thousand years ago as described in Genesis. If mastodons became extinct, he once said, it was because they were too big to fit in Noah's ark.

Young Darwin's meticulous observations at sea and on land slowly led him to doubt the biblical version of creation. His traditional religious faith was shaken to its core.

Upon return to England after a five year circumnavigation of the globe, Fitzroy published a massive two-volume account of the voyage, to which was appended a third volume by Darwin, the journal he kept during the voyage.

For his contributions to marine cartography, Fitzroy was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society and elected to the Royal Society, Britain's foremost scientific institution. But it is Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle that has come down to us as a classic of the history of science, while Fitzroy's narrative has sunk into obscurity.

Fitzroy's career was haunted at every turn by disappointment and discord, perhaps in part because of his own tormented personality. He had a brief and acrimonious stint as a member of Parliament. In 1843 he was appointed governor of the recently established colony of New Zealand. He drew the wrath of land-grabbing settlers by advocating rights of the native population and was soon relieved of his post.

In 1854 Fitzroy was appointed as statistician to the newly-formed meteorologic department of the Board of Trade, and it was here that he was to make his most significant contribution to science.

He was not content to merely compile weather data; he wanted to warn sailors and coastal communities of approaching gales. He supplied cheap barometers to sea-going fishermen with the understanding that they maintain records, and established a series of coastal stations that telegraphed weather data to the Meteorlogic Office in London. Within this mass of data he looked for patterns, and soon was drawing weather charts and issuing forecasts. When the Times of London began printing daily weather forecasts in 1860, it was on the basis of Fitzroy's work. Many of his meteorlogical innovations remain today a familiar part of British culture.

In the summer of 1860 Fitzroy came to the annual meeting of the British Association at Oxford to deliver a paper on "British Storms." He was in the audience at a later session of the meeting for the famous debate on evolution between Thomas Huxley, Darwin's young protege, and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. In the ensuing uproar Fitzroy leapt to his feet in a rage, waving a copy of the Scriptures. "Here is truth," he cried, "nowhere else." He was shouted down. Once again the day went to Darwin.

Meanwhile, back at the Meteorologic Office, more trouble was brewing. When Fitzroy's weather forecasts failed, as they often did, he was severely criticized by the public. His scientific colleagues were even more vehement. He had been hired to compile data, they said, not use it. And theoretical principles of weather systems should be better understood before warnings were issued to the public.

All his life Fitzroy was subject to bouts of depression. This latest controversy was too much to bear. On Sunday morning, April 3rd, 1865, at 59 years of age, he slit his own throat with a razor.

Robert Fitzroy has a secure place in the history of science. Unfortunately, it's the wrong place. He is remembered as Darwin's Bible-waving nemesis rather than the first modern weatherman.

Further Reading

The finest piece of scientific exposition I have ever watched on television is the BBC's 7-part series The Voyage of Charles Darwin (1978). It is simply brilliant. If you can lay your hands on a copy and can still play tapes, you are in for entertainment, education, and delight. The encounters of Darwin and Fitzroy remain vivid in my memory, as if I had been there in the captain's cabin of the Beagle. It is a sadness beyond measure that the series is not available for purchase on DVD.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.