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Time was when most educated people knew, more or less, what geography meant. Putting aside its Greek etymology ("earth description"), for people of a certain age it instantly evokes images of oxbow lakes, valley-scouring glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, alluvial fans, cloud formation and perhaps a bearded teacher. 

Physical geography is the venerable descendant of the early investigative forays made by the ancient Greeks who took the first steps in this formal examination of our planet — men like Anaximander of Miletus, the sixth-century BC polymath credited with introducing the gnomon, an early sundial that helped determine solstices and equinoxes, to Greece. 

With considerable input from Chinese and, later, Arab civilisations, geography emerged as a curious hybrid of cartography, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and literature. Perhaps no one expressed the emerging discipline with quite as much chutzpah as Herodotus, the fifth-century BC Greek whose traditional "Father of History" moniker belied his position as an early and itinerant — if madcap and unreliable — geographer. In Egypt, he set up his vast open-air laboratory and studied its mysteries, the source of the Nile, its seasonal flooding and alluvial deposits, its flora and fauna. He understood, as many physical geographers do today, the compelling need to take to the field for his research and conduct the ancient world equivalent of empirical observation. No armchair geographer he.

In the 19th century, when the Royal Geographical Society was a byword for international exploration and scientific discovery, the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt helped lay the foundations for modern geography with his magnum opus Kosmos, a prodigious, five-volume attempt to unify the various strands of geographical science. Charles Darwin considered Humboldt "the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived".

For many geographers today, this sort of physical geography is deeply unfashionable and downright irrelevant. Human geographers, by definition, are more interested in people than in places. They are interested, among other things, in gender, culture, health, development, urban environments, behaviour, politics, transportation and tourism. Many physical geographers feel increasingly alienated by their colleagues' distrust of empirical science, a scepticism informed largely by the post-modernist assault on geography in recent years.

The tensions within geographical science have come to an acrimonious head at the RGS. A high-profile initiative, named The Beagle Campaign in honour of Darwin's ground-breaking, RGS-assisted expedition to South America in 1831-1836 and launched on the 150th anniversary of his On the Origin of Species, aims to restore balance to the Society's activities by getting it to mount its own field research projects again. The Society has failed to mount a single expedition in a decade. On 18 May, Fellows voted 61 per cent to 38 per cent against the initiative, an extraordinary show of support for the underdogs. The campaign, with which this writer is closely involved, has uncovered deep fissures within an organisation that for almost two centuries has been a broad church of interests and experiences at the forefront of geographical discovery (www.thebeaglecampaign.com).

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Armchair Geographer
November 28th, 2012
3:11 AM
Wow, what a great point. as someone who has been disapointed with the direction of geography for a long time, at last we get someone willing to stand for a position. I am one of those urban geographers, a planner no less, but where is the observation? I ask you why do we have so many untested theories and so little fact?

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