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Polynesia explorers created worldwide web of scientific knowledge

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Scientific travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries led waves of daring expeditions into Polynesia, netting oceans of discoveries about its geography, flora and fauna and people.

But they were more than simply courageous collectors of artifacts and statistics, says the author of a new book. These seafaring naturalists were the producers and mediators of a new "global network of scientific knowledge," argues historian Harry Liebersohn, the author of "The Travelers' World: Europe to the Pacific" (Harvard University Press).

Liebersohn's book explains how these men of science worked with their subjects, how they juggled the truth to jive with their sponsors' instructions, how they influenced discourse at home and fought their fiercest enemy not mosquitoes, but swarms of missionaries who invaded their turf and challenged their findings.

Liebersohn's study is the first to put the travelers at the center of the "networks of knowledge" story, to make them "mediators in the global system for the production of knowledge," he said.

According to Liebersohn, the naturalist-travelers worked back and forth from patrons at home to collaborators including native informants, traders and beachcombers abroad. They contended with their patrons on their return and tried "in one form or another" to convey their findings to a fascinated European public.

"Their published travel accounts are the outcome of a system reaching across the globe, squeezing from the travelers information to satisfy state ministers, the scientific community and public opinion," wrote Liebersohn, a European cultural and intellectual historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Braving extremes of polar cold and equatorial heat, the scientific voyages that sailed around Cape Horn between 1750 and 1850 systematically surveyed and studied the terra incognitas of Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand and Tahiti. Some accounts became bestsellers that "
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Contact: Andrea Lynn
andreal@uiuc.edu
217-333-2177
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
7-Aug-2006


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