Exploring our garden

London: A century ago, when Amundsen and Scott made it to the South Pole, it must have seemed as though humans had conquered the Earth. We’d reached both its ends, we had already found found the source of the Nile, and over the next few decades, we’d climb the highest mountain, sink to the bottom of the sea, visit pretty much every nook and cranny and even escape our planet to look down on Earth from Space.

Many ecologists now claim that there is nowhere left on Earth that is truly wild, truly untouched by man – certainly nowhere humans haven’t visited. That may be true. Certainly by altering the composition of our atmosphere, oceans and the circulatory climate systems, we have spread our influence: everything that breathes air, now breathes a different number of carbon dioxide molecules; and plants and corals uptake a different ratio of carbon isotopes, for example.

So is this the end of exploration? Have we been everywhere, seen everything? No, we’re only just beginning. A century ago, Rutherford explored our planet’s smallest region: the atom. Now, we’re discovering that he didn’t really understand the geography at all. Explorers at CERN are looking for a key landmark, the Higgs boson, to help re-chart the territory with much greater precision.

The same mapping is happening for the stuff of life, our cells and genetic code, and we’re exploring the ecology of our bodies to find out the mix of microorganisms that live within us and start to understand the myriad of ways that they influence us.

We’re exploring our planet in new, more inclusive ways. We can visit remote places by satellite, by plane imagery and through the readily available journeys of others. We can look at the microscopic all around us and remotely, probe the most furthest depths of our oceans. And in many ways, these explorations provide us with more context than a single journey made by a few brave adventurers. The more humans explore, the more we realise how complex is our planet, its geology and biology.

Travel around our much-trampled world now is still, to me, the most exciting adventure. It remains true exploration, because even if it’s thoroughly charted and mapped and visited by everyone, until I’ve smelt the air, eaten the food, chatted to the people and animals, it’s hardly more real to me than Wonderland or Lilliput. This year promises plenty of exploring for me, although some of it will be virtual, because it’ll have to fit around writing projects. But I do have plans to visit some new places – and to take you with me.

Wishing you a great year of explorations in 2012.

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