About 300 years ago, much of the world remained shrouded in mystery even to the most intrepid of travelers. The interiors of vast swaths of continents were unmapped and unknown to outsiders. In recent years, some of the best science and natural history writing has retraced the efforts of the men — and yes, it was a boys' club — who embarked on voyages of discovery that laid the groundwork for our modern understanding of the innerworkings of the natural world.
These accounts, all published since 2005, combine the spirit of exploration with science and technology. The books are part travelogue and part biography, and they demonstrate that we're a curious species capable of remarkable achievements.
These books also make ideal gifts for natural history buffs who will be stuck indoors during the long nights and cold days that lie ahead.
Through his sharp observations on the impulse to explore, Oxford professor Robert McFarlane retraces pilgrimage paths and ancients tracts that take readers to remote corners of the world. Unlike Muir or Thoreau, he's no solitary wanderer ruminating on woodlands. The book is teeming with people, both past and present, who, like the author, felt the need to roam. Luminous throughout, the book excels when the author traverses his home turf.
Covering all manner of topics — history, geography, archaeology — as he hikes on trails that once connected the medieval market towns of England to each other and to Northern Europe, MacFarlane reminds us that we all share common paths, participating in journeys that are part of greater journeys linked by history and time.
A page-turning title about a self-taught clock maker, Soble turns the life of John Harrison into high-stakes drama. In the 18th century, reputations and fortunes were at stake as engineers scrambled to invent a device that would enable mariners to navigate the open ocean with precision. For centuries, sailors had pointed their boats in the right direction, maintained their course and hoped they reached landfall, if at all, since being lost at sea was a common occurrence.
In "Longitude," Sobel captures Harrison's life-long obsession to build the perfect navigational instrument. Harrison's invention of the chronometer enabled British mariners to take command the seven seas with their version of an 18th century GPS system. His rivalries and the race to produce an empire-building technology make the Mac versus PC feud seem tame by comparison.
Imagine boarding a boat bound for Tahiti, in the name of science, perhaps never to return home. Holmes lays out the biographies of some of England's leading minds during an era when science and exploration were inextricably linked. In the late 18th century and the decades that followed, scientists joined expeditions to the ends of the earth and into the atmosphere, all in the name of discovery.
Holmes' book spans the decades between Captain Cook's circumnavigation of the globe in 1768 and Charles Darwin's voyage of the Beagle to the Galapagos in the 1830s. Over the course of the book, he places the discoveries of groundbreaking thinkers in the context of the revolutionary ideas that were then sweeping across much of Europe. In short Holmes, puts the awe back in awesome.
Ever look at the squiggly lines on weather maps and wondered who invented them? You can thank the Alexander von Humboldt for that, a man described by his 18th century peers as the most famous man of his era besides Napoleon. Acclaimed author Andrea Wulf reveals the cabinet of curiosities that comprised Humboldt's lifetime of achievement. A gifted polymath born into German nobility, he used his considerable fortune to finance expeditions and independent research. At 27, he left Europe for Latin America with a head full of ideas bound and returned 5 years later to great renown. Von Humboldt's inner-drive to discover the innerworkings of nature had paid dividends.
Although largely forgotten in the United States, Wulf brings the Humboldt and his achievements into sharp focus by offering a vivid account of his galvanizing personality and his trailblazing ideas that enthralled lecture halls on two continents
Dread flying? Bring a copy of 'Skyfaring' on your next trip. Businessman turned aviator Mark Vanhoenacker initiates readers into the wonders of long-distance air travel. The book is packed with fascinating details about the mechanics of flight that enable pilots and their passengers to hopscotch across continents with relative ease.
Fluent in the language of instrumentation and navigation, the author takes readers into the cockpit and seamlessly explains how intercontinental travel is measured in hours and not months. The analogies to ocean voyagers are clear: pilots are the sea captains of our time, tasked with hauling people and cargo across oceans of air safely. The book is a joyful look at air travel and the underexamined aspects of flight from the perspective of a person who clearly loves his job.