Photograph by Emory Kristof
The National Geographic Society has been funding researchers, engineers, and technology experts since 1888. Here are just a few of the achievements in science, exploration, and conservation that have had a substantial amount of National Geographic funding or a significant degree of Geographic participation.
National Geographic photographic expertise has often evolved in response to scientific needs, especially underwater. Working closely with Bob Ballard and his colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (owners of the submersible Alvin, seen above), National Geographic's Emory Kristof and his team of photo-engineers refined shipboard photographic processes and designed new imaging systems that played a crucial role in the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents and the strange biological communities surrounding them.
Thinking in Circles
Photograph by W. Robert Moore
Scientists correlating the rings in samples of bristlecone pine are indebted to the pioneering work of A.E. Douglass, an astronomer who in the 1920s realized that tree rings could provide a means of absolute dating. By matching up successive sequences of older and older rings, primarily using sections of ceiling beams found in ancient Native American ruins, he constructed a reliable archaeological calendar dating back hundreds of years. Today tree ring chronologies reach back an amazing 10,000 years.
3,000 Feet Beneath the Sea
Photograph by John Tee-Van
Instead of relying on the uncertain catch from nets and trawls, naturalist William Beebe (right) decided to study deep-sea creatures in their habitat. In 1934, Beebe and engineer Otis Barton (left) climbed into the cramped interior of a two-ton steel observation chamber called a bathysphere and became the first humans ever lowered half a mile below the surface of the ocean. Once below, they observed the surrounding marine life from a porthole.
Photograph by Gianluca Colla
As a biological anthropologist with the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, Dario Piombino-Mascali had long studied the mummified bodies found in church and cathedral crypts in his native Sicily. He has now finally discovered how the old embalmers worked their magic: They injected the corpses' arteries with a potent mixture of chemicals—including bacteria-killing formalin, fungi-destroying salicylic acid, and especially zinc salts, which promote petrification.
Photograph by Stephen Blake
The giant tortoises on the Galápagos Islands may be lumbering but they do get around, Stephen Blake has discovered. By outfitting the great reptiles with GPS telemetry tags, then correlating the timing of their digestion with their movements, Blake has shown that tortoises are among the most prolific seed dispersers in the archipelago, "gardening the Galápagos," he says.
That Dangerous Gleam
Photograph by Richard Hewitt Stewart
Only as an afterthought did Capt. Albert Stevens (right) decide to borrow football helmets from a local high school. On November 11, 1935, he and Maj. Orville Anderson climbed into Explorer II, an instrument-crammed gondola attached to a 26-story-tall balloon that lifted them from their launch site in South Dakota nearly 14 miles into the stratosphere. That dizzying ascent set a manned altitude record that was not surpassed for another 21 years, pointing the way to the space program.
Out There Somewhere
Photograph by Erik Jepsen
The ultra-high-tech HIPerSpace Wall, featuring 287 million pixels of screen resolution, is an apt tool for University of California, San Diego research scientist Albert Lin. His quest to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, hidden somewhere in Mongolia, is being conducted without sinking a single shovel. Instead, Lin is using cutting-edge, noninvasive methods—including satellite imagery, ground-penetrating radar, and remote sensing—in an attempt to locate the famously hidden resting place.
Captain Nemo’s Realm
Photograph by Luis Marden
Powered by hydrojets and able to descend about a thousand feet to the ocean's continental shelves, Jacques-Yves Cousteau's revolutionary "diving saucer," which he unveiled in 1959, was the first fully maneuverable research submersible. With its viewports and array of cameras resembling eyes and tentacles, even its inventor thought it appeared out of the underwater gloom like "some great bivalve or strange crustacean."
Seeing by Sound Waves
Photograph by Joe Scherschel
The inventive Harold Edgerton not only sent cameras to the deep, he also devised other ways of "seeing" in the abyss. By the 1960s he was testing sonic boomers in MIT's research pool (above). His side-scan sonar's "sound pictures" culminated in the 1973 discovery of the sunken Civil War ironclad Monitor off Cape Hatteras. And in the 1980s they helped identify the cabin of the space shuttle Challenger lying on the seafloor off the coast of Florida.
Photograph by Isabelle Charrier
As part of her studies on how walruses communicate, Isabelle Charrier sometimes deliberately panics their herds. By blasting recorded sounds of airplane engines or motorboats at them, she is trying to determine whether such deafening noises might, for instance, drown out a pup's distress call to its mother.
When the Sun Dies
Photograph by Jay Pasachoff
An eclipse sequence is a familiar sight to astronomer Jay Pasachoff, who has observed over 50 of them from all over the globe. By employing sophisticated telescopes and imaging systems, he has honed in on finer details in the sun's corona than had been previously visible to the eyes of science. Pasachoff has correlated his results with those obtained by specialized spacecraft and increasingly with the observations of exoplanets transiting the faces of distant stars.
Photograph courtesy Martin Nweeia
Martin Nweeia is trying to answer an old question: Just what is the purpose of the narwhal's tusk, a modified tooth that is said to resemble a unicorn's horn? He theorizes that one of its functions is to sense ion changes in seawater that are associated with the formation and melting of ice, a possible indicator of climate change. To find out, his team attached sensors to the tusks of some whales and, to obtain electroencephalographic readings, inserted electrodes beneath their skin—challenging work in Arctic seas.
Lightning in the Deep
Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart
Harold Edgerton, inventor of high-speed strobe photography, spent his summers throughout the 1950s and '60s on the deck of Jacques Cousteau's Calypso, subjecting his devices to the rigors of the open ocean. Though wires might short out and housings crumple, he returned from each season with new and more reliable models, bringing improved stroboscopic technology to ocean science.
Face of the Deep
Photograph by Mike Lombardi
Working at depths below 400 feet, Michael Lombardi and his diving team have been exploring the incredibly diverse deep coral reef off the Bahamas' Andros Island. Although it's the third largest barrier reef in the world, it's been largely unexplored because it plunges abruptly into a chasm called the Tongue of the Ocean. The high-resolution photographs and high-definition video imagery captured by the team represent the first glimpses of a little-understood ecosystem—one that, among other things, might be a source of new medicines.
Video: Why the Ocean Matters
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