A few centuries ago, bold sailors and explorers, in search of adventures and beautiful fortunes, set out to discover the world. Some were in the service of the Crown, with the duty of discovering and taking possession of new lands, and of securing the influence of the nation. Others obeyed the orders of wealthy shipowners, bankers or merchants, the discovery of precious materials, new markets.
In any case, whatever the sponsor, these intrepid explorers left with scholars. Embarked for unknown destinations, these elites – geographers, mathematicians, astronomers, etc. – attempted to penetrate the mysteries of the relative movements of the Earth and the stars, of terrestrial magnetism, of the calculation of longitude in the service of navigation. Others-botanists, zoologists, painters, writers, doctors-went to meet new civilizations, to discover new species. They brought back samples of stuffed animals, dried herbarium plants, meteorites, naturalist paintings that are still the wealth of natural history museums. Through its colonial expansion, nineteenth- and twentieth-century France offered generations of scientists an unlimited field of exploration.
Today, do we have to wonder about the relevance and future of scientific expeditions? This would imply that the sophistication of technologies would be sufficient to explore the Earth while remaining in front of its screens. To imagine that one no longer needs to go into the field would be to believe that discoveries are simply made through pure logic or a formalized calculation.
On the scale of the gaze
The pioneers of encyclopedic knowledge explored the world at scale 1, that of the gaze. It is true that on this scale, life-size, we can consider that the planet is mostly known, mapped in its details, inventoried, except the deep seabed and the depths of the Earth. Today, thanks to new technologies, exploration has changed scale and field missions continue.
In the life sciences, no more species are collected, biopsies or drops of blood are collected. We have gone from the magnifying glass to the electron microscope, from anatomy to phylogenetic classification by sequencing DNA and RNA. Dating is based on transformations over time of radioactive elements such as carbon 14 and other more recent methods, giving answers on the evolution of species and the origins of man. The investigations continue, they are indispensable and inexhaustible, they evolve constantly and the discoveries call for new research. If the world is finished, our ability to explore it is infinite.
Earth and ocean sciences are making incredible advances thanks to space observations, drones, beacons and automated stations. Satellites scrutinize with unprecedented precision the impact of human activities on the Earth’s crust, the evolution of sea ice and polar ice caps, temperature and rising sea levels. But they are “blind” without a ground validation of the measure, the “ground truth”, the ground truth. For example, for the Polar Pod expedition, whose objective is to explore the Southern Ocean – this huge yet unknown ocean surrounding Antarctica – space agencies are asking us to calibrate the color of the ocean, characterized by the nature and concentration of plant plankton, the keystone of the food web of all marine species. Once validated, satellite monitoring of these microscopic algae can be used to assess marine resources and quantify climate action by their ability to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis, the so-called biological carbon pump. Another important point is that satellite observation stops at the surface of the water; the campaigns at sea for fisheries research, physical oceanography and the study of the seabed are therefore indispensable.
On the other hand, the exploration of space and the cosmos is the fruit of research carried out by some exceptional geniuses – Kepler, Newton, Einstein … – who have elaborated the fundamental theories of the universe by calculation. The capturing on the ground of the tiny twitches of the universe, like the existence of neutrinos and gravitational waves, confirm the genius of these authors. Nevertheless, the first steps on the Moon, the International Space Station, the Martian station projects, reveal the irresistible attraction of Man for exploration. In filigree, we find the search for a major unknown that has always choked humanity; life exists elsewhere than on our planet, are we alone in the universe?
Technological research for the implementation of these scientific explorations has far-reaching repercussions on our lives: science opens to knowledge, technology structures. Scientific adventures still have a promising future.