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CSS Colloquium - Bo Poulsen: Environmental history

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Monday 27 May 2013,  at 10:15 - 12:00



Formal and informal maritime empires – Danish marine science in the North Atlantic, c. 1900-1930.

Bo Poulsen, Aalborg University


The concept of ‘Big Science’ is normally associated with the Manhattan Project and later initiatives, where governments, military forces, capitalist enterprises and scientists join hands in solving big societal issues together. This paper contends that the specific character of ocean explorations such as the huge costs of equipping vessels, manning them often for years of travels and handling the findings of explorations makes the concept of Big Science just as relevant for marine science also prior to WWII.

In Denmark, a small power by European standards such a case of big science came about in the wake of the 20th century when Danish oceanography took to the deep sea. The personification of this was the Danish oceanographer Johannes Schmidt, the foremost fundraiser in Danish marine science in the first third of the 20th century. He was particularly apt at raising funds for deep sea explorations in the Atlantic, and crowned his achievements by successfully launching the world’s first circumnavigation with a distinct biogeographic purpose in 1928-30. The scientific legacy of these explorations amounts to discovering the breeding places of the Atlantic eel and later eels in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Perhaps less spectacular but similarly path breaking was the marking experiments conducted over several decades to map the migration patterns of cod around Iceland.

These expeditions, launched in Denmark unfolded as interplay between scientific strategies, colonial desires and changing natural resource availability in the Atlantic Ocean. In the cold waters around Iceland and Greenland there was a clear incentive to enhance knowledge on the emerging fisheries for cod and halibut for both direct fisheries gains and also in order to keep Norwegian geopolitical and fisheries resource driven interests at bay. In the Danish West Indies, the picture is less clear with regards the prospects of deep sea explorations creating immediate economic gains for local fisheries. Here, the overall Danish effort in oceanography should rather be seen as a way of unfolding an informal colonial empire through ocean sciences in a time when the Danish political colonial presence was folding.