A Floating Monument to Fieldwork

Over the weekend I headed up the road to Dundee, even though I was frequently met with the question of ‘Why?’ I had a date with a ship. And not just any ship, the RSS Discovery.

A photo of a 3-masted wooden sailing ship

The RRS Discovery–where ‘Treasure Island’ meets fieldwork.

The RRS Discovery is a pretty unique ship. One of the last of the three-masted wooden ships constructed in Britain, she is also the first purpose-built research vessel–designed specifically for Antarctic exploration. Designed with the research questions in mind, it would be like getting a rocket ship built just for you and your lab mates to use.

There is a small museum nearby where the ship is docked, detailing the construction, daily life of the crew, and the research they undertook while there. But the part that impressed me the most was the fact that every detail of the design had both the environmental conditions (as best they knew them) and the research aims at the forefront of the process. For instance, the hull is double-layered: There is an inner hull (the part you see in the interior of the ship) and then an outer hull. The outer hull is constructed from 24 different types of wood, specifically chosen for their flexing properties (and their maximum flexibility at different temperatures). The space between the two hulls was filled with salt, in order that it might absorb any water that would get in should any hairline fractures develop in the outer hull. How clever (and meticulous!) is that?

Picture of the interior of the RRS Discovery

The interior space is accessed via these letter-box shaped holes, where you could add salt as needed.

Despite this planning, water does get in. There were some areas in the engine room where you could find an inch of water standing the base of the hull. I asked a docent about it, and she said that it’s just part of the ship. When she first sailed, this water started appearing, and when she arrived in New Zealand for re-provisioning, she was dry-docked and shipbuilders there looked for the leak. They couldn’t find one, and the expedition continued on reason that she hadn’t sunk yet, so she was unlikely to at this point. During the ship’s recent restoration, an MRI scan was taken of the hull, in order to finally find (and repair) the leak. The restorers couldn’t find the leak either. The hull construction is just too complicated.


The RRS Discovery’s lab.

Perhaps even more interesting than the Discovery’s construction and context is the scientific advances that were made on her. The initial 1903 expedition featured a physicist, a botanist, a biologist, and a geologist. The physicist took meteorological measurements and worked to resolve the difference between magnetic and geographic south.

A photo of a desk with watercolour paintings on it

An alcove in the lab, with watercolours of whales and seals

The botanist and biologist recorded marine flora and fauna, and brought back as many specimens as they could carry. The geologist found granite, and determined Antarctica to be a continent. He also found leafy plant fossils just a few miles inland from the coast, which supported early climate change theories and gave an indication of the types of life that was possible on Antarctica before it was in its present location. No one from the ship attempted to reach the South Pole; that was not part of their mission.

In all, I found the ship to be well worth the day trip out of Edinburgh, and would certainly recommend it for anyone with an interest in the polar regions and the history of science.  Or just ship buffs.

Over to you: Do you know of any other cool science history places worth checking out?

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