Friday, September 7, 2012

Message in a bottle

A Scottish fisherman has found the world's oldest message in a bottle, the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed last week. It is 98 years old, and was cast into the ocean by Captain C. Hunter Brown*, a scientist at the Glasgow School of Navigation, who was studying the currents in the North Sea.

The bottle was one of 1,890 bottles released on June 10, 1914, and the 315th to be entered into Captain Brown's log, which is still kept and updated by Marine Scotland Science in Aberdeen.
I'd say this qualifies as a nearly century-old citizen science experiment, though that's not a term scientists would have been familiar with then. Just take a look at the card contained in the bottle (which could be sent back to Hunter without postage). These drift bottles were data traps, intended to capture information with the help of regular people.

"Drift bottles gave oceanographers at the start of the last century important information that allowed them to create pictures of the patterns of water circulation in the seas around Scotland," explained Bill Turrell, Head of Marine Ecosystems with Marine Scotland Science explained in the official press release on the event. "These images were used to underpin further research -- such as determining the drift of herring larvae from spawning grounds, which helped scientists understand the life cycle of this key species."

But we don't have to take Turrell's word for it. Google scanned some old Scottish fisheries reports that contain reports from Brown's experiments. Sadly, copyright law prevents us from looking at the 1914 experiment, but we have full-text access to an earlier operation from 1907, which appears to have been the test case for the later, larger bottle drop. In fact, here's Brown's planned card, as shown in the 1907 version.

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