Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

‘I Do It From My Couch’: The Next Generation of Explorers

[What you need to know to start the day: Get New York Today in your inbox.]

The Explorers Club is exactly what it sounds like: a members-only institution, established more than a century ago, and dedicated to scientific inquiry. Many of those admitted — there are currently 3,500 members — have touched upon uncharted territories, and all are active in the field of science research. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were part of the club, as was Thor Heyerdahl. Recently, Elon Musk joined.

For 115 years, members have gathered annually for a weekend of science and a black-tie dinner at the New York headquarters, on the Upper East Side. The most recent event, held on March 16, featured 10 astronauts who were part of the Apollo program and an auction where attendees could bid on joining a world-renowned paleontologist on a dinosaur fossil dig.

The weekend of science also introduced something new: The club let its youngest members, some still undergraduates in college, present their initiatives.

There was Alex Borowicz, a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University, who uses high-resolution satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to track whales. “It used to be that people had to go on a boat with binoculars to do that,” he said, during his presentation. “I do it from my couch.”

Another young presenter was Stephen Daire, a graduate student at the University of Southern California. He had built robots able to explore caves so humans don’t have to. His robot even builds itself a charging station before it starts its work so it can take care of its own needs later.

For generations, exploration meant going to faraway lands and bringing back significant artifacts. The club is filled with items from these journeys: tusks from a rare elephant species and flags that flew on the moon. A giant taxidermy polar bear hovers over the second floor.

But it is clear that the newer members are different kinds of pioneers. Many of them are using technology, in addition to safari gear and compasses, to uncover the world’s greatest secrets. This has resulted in some growing pains at the club, as younger and older members struggle to expand the definition of exploration in 2019.

“For the older folks, maybe they were the first person somewhere because the world hadn’t been explored that much, and they had that opportunity,” said Aleksandr Rikhterman, 26, a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker. “We can’t do that so we have to look at exploring differently. We can use new tools to take a closer look at the environments that have already been found.”

The afternoon of presentations showcasing new technologies was the first step.

To join the club with full voting rights, two other members must nominate you, and annual fees can cost hundreds of dollars. But there is also a way to as a join as a “fellow” with just one referral, and the initiation fee is waived for students.

That said, being a young member in the Explorers Club can sometimes be challenging to navigate. Adam Gordon, 32, who works in human rights law at N.Y.U., said he remembered when he first got his membership and immediately went to the members-only section of the website. “It was a ghost town,” he said. “There was nothing on it.”

Going to events in person was intimidating for Mr. Gordon, too. “Members tend to be in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” he said. “And some are pretty renowned.”

The clubhouse, with its wooden walls, leather club chairs, and plaques on the wall commemorating member firsts (like the summit of Mount Everest in 1953), has a somewhat faded 20th-century grandeur that might come across as outdated to younger members.

For example, the taxidermy. “The concept of Victorian hunters is quite alien to some of the younger members,” said Joshua Powell, who is deciding whether to pursue a doctorate at the University of Oxford, of a similar institution in England. “But England tried to cleanse itself entirely of it, and its clubhouse is quite stark as a result.”

The Next Generation Explorers Network, or NGEN, was created in 2017. At first it was just a Facebook group where young members could share their work, ask questions and find one another. “The group currently has 175 members,” said Brianna Rowe, one of the organizers, during the annual weekend of science. After the event, membership grew to 199, pending approval from the club.

The network has also started holding events like “beer and gear” nights where members talk about their favorite equipment, sometimes with an expert, like the climber Vanessa O’Brien, and seminars on how to get funding for an expedition.

But these initiatives are mostly created by young members for young members. (All members are welcome in NGEN, but according to Ms. Rowe, most of the participation is by those under 40.) The big problem is how to mix the new with the old.

Francesco Bandarin, the former assistant director-general for culture of Unesco and a member for about a year, said he believes the club needs to be going in this direction. “The Explorers Club has had an emphasis on geographic exploration, the South Pole, the North Pole,” he said. “It’s a little different now. We can explore the world with many more tools than hundreds of years ago. These young people are using satellites and lasers. It’s so cool.”

Peter Lenahan, 62, brings young members along on expeditions he organizes, his most recent of which was a caving trip in Laos. “I’ve been leading trips for a long time, and I try to get the young people involved,” he said. “It’s really not that hard; you just have to tell them about the trip.”

George Basch, 82, seemed a bit let down that more older people didn’t attend the most recent round of NGEN presentations. “It wasn’t that well advertised, and I’m disappointed the room was so small,” he said. “This is something that should have been presented to thousands of people. There were only about 20 of us old folks in the room.”

But Mr. Basch planned to spread the word about the presentations. “I’m going to talk about it to everybody I meet or see the rest of the weekend,” he said. “These kids are so bright, so enthusiastic and so resourceful. Our club is lucky to have them so we won’t die out.”

Source: Read Full Article

Related Posts