Guest article by Nick Nielsen and Jacob Shively of Icarus Interstellar.
Science is an intellectual adventure. Sometimes it is also a physical adventure.
The recent flyby of Pluto and its moon Charon by NASA's New Horizons mission, for example, has reconnoitered new reaches of space for science, and it has expanded our knowledge of the outer solar system. The mission will continue through the Kuiper Belt, investigating a realm far from immediate human experience.
Yet when some adventurous soul does travel as far as Pluto, perhaps to set a record, or merely for bragging rights, it will be a day far more memorable -- and perhaps more scientifically valuable -- than New Horizon's feat.
PHOTOS: From the Start, Pluto was a Puzzle
Sometimes adventures not intended as anything more than personal excitement or narrow competition have resulted in surprising discoveries. In earlier eras, adventure was often necessary to advance science. Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole in 1911 exemplify the spirit of adventure science, but they had many predecessors.
Early modern mariners literally sailed off the map, and their stories are now an essential piece of human culture and history. Later, the French Geodesic Mission to the equator of 1735-1739 was recounted in the 1748 book Relación histórica del viaje a la América meridional by Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, which is as much about the adventure as about the science of the expedition.
The accounts of the French Geodesic Mission partly inspired Alexander von Humboldt's 1799-1804 travels in South America. Humboldt himself became one of the most famous Europeans on the 19th century and inspired the academic field of biogeography. Darwin's years on board the Beagle opened his eyes to the diversity of life, and continued to serve as an inspiration for decades after his return. We're told his later theories even had some impact on the scientific community.
7 Adventurers from History Who Broke the Mold
Now the Earth has been largely explored, and adventures in exploration become increasingly more contrived as the world is known in increasingly fine detail. The adventure science of Humboldt, Darwin, Peary, and Amundsen no longer holds its esteemed position either in popular imagination or in serious science.
Wealthy, idiosyncratic elites like James Cameron still spark occasional headlines, yet the era is gone in which adventurers could make a disproportionate contribution to science by going where no human being had previously set foot, or where no trained scientific observer had recorded their experiences. Researchers willing to sleep in the rough and forego the comforts of home still make discoveries in Earth's jungles, deserts, deeps and tundras, yet their work remains bound to restrictive grants and professionalized disciplines.
Not only has the world been explored, but the conditions of science have changed. "Big" science now makes headlines. Scientific research papers in fields like particle physics and genetics might boast lists of up to three thousand co-authors or more. The scientific instruments necessary to conduct cutting edge experiments in particle physics, for instance, cost billions of dollars and take years or decades for construction. Once constructed, they must be maintained and updated at further expense.