Sometimes, a century and a quarter of solving ancient mysteries, unearthing lost civilizations and discovering elusive creatures begins with a simple invitation.
That is how, 125 years ago today, 33 of America's foremost scientists and explorers found themselves meeting across the street from the White House, summoned to consider "the advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge."
The men were mapmakers and meteorologists, a one-armed Civil War hero and a naturalist with a fondness for roasted skunk. They had climbed America's highest mountains, marked out its coastlines, documented its plants and animals and traced the path of its storms. To a person, their favorite adventure was "the next one." But for that one night on Jan. 13, 1888, these restless men stood still. By the end of it, they had voted to create an organization like no other and gave it a name: the National Geographic Society.
As the adventurers departed, they could not have imagined that from that meeting would come some of the world's greatest discoveries of the next 125 years. Hiram Bingham's 1912 exploration of the "lost city of the Inca" known as Machu Picchu, the first flight over the South Pole by Richard Byrd in 1929, Jane Goodall's revolutionary study of wild chimpanzees beginning in 1960, Louis and Mary Leakey's decades-long search for fossils in Africa that unlocked understanding of our past, and Robert Ballard's 1985 exploration of the Titanic are just some of the more than 10,000 expeditions supported by the Society so far.
But what is left to explore? In an era when physicists have located the so-called "God Particle," scientists have put a 3,000-year-old mummy under a CT scanner to find its cause of death, and NASA's Cassini spacecraft has sent more than 300,000 stunning images of Saturn and its moons back to Earth, it's tempting to think that everything has been discovered. But we see daily evidence that puts this question to rest. If anything, the pace and urgency of exploration are accelerating, revealing vital new knowledge that has been unimaginable until now.
Last year's dive to Earth's deepest point, seven miles down in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, embodied this new era. Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron took the world with him to a place as alien as the planet Pandora in "Avatar" and reminded us that some 95 percent of the ocean remains to be explored.
The revolutionary tools today's explorers are using to "increase and diffuse" knowledge would have seemed like science fiction to our founders. These new technologies are opening up arenas of exploration never before possible, revealing details of cultures once thought lost to science. Satellites, for example, are peering through sand to detect undiscovered pyramids in Egypt and spotting long-lost cities through tree canopy in the Amazon.
Twenty-first-century technologies also are bringing everyday people into the exploration tent. Four years ago we dispatched a team to a remote stretch of Mongolia to lead a non-invasive search for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan in a culturally sensitive area. The team deployed radar, 3D imaging and other next-generation technology to search thousands of miles of open space for ancient ruins, uploaded the images to the Web and invited the public to tag spots that looked promising. Our team on the ground then used technology to explore the most promising sites without ever lifting a shovel. They discovered what is very likely a temple built by Genghis Khan's descendants, with tantalizing possibilities for what lies inside.
Exploration for the Society's founders was driven not only by a desire for knowledge but as a means to quench their thirst for adventure. Today's explorers have the same goals but seem to be driven by a deeper purpose -- to help us navigate the increasingly complex relationship between humanity's needs and the natural world that sustains us.
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence J. Michael Fay felt so strongly that he walked 2,000 miles across Africa's Congo Basin -- enduring poachers, leaches, malaria and duct-taped blisters -- to call attention to this unspoiled gem. The evidence he returned with ultimately won the attention of Gabon's president, who set aside 11 percent of that country as national parks, preserving the land for future generations.
Meanwhile, legions of latter-day explorers are finding answers to our most tantalizing challenges. From scientists mapping the human genome to improve health care; to researchers using single-atom thick sheets of carbon to more efficiently convert salt water to drinking water; to agronomists adding micro-nutrients to staple crops to improve food security, this new age of exploration reaches from the smallest atom to the highest mountain. The more we learn about our planet, and its twin challenges of a growing population and limited resources, the more we'll be able to prescribe a sustainable path for all of us.
The first president of National Geographic, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, was neither a geographer nor a scientist. In his inaugural address, he struck a note that continues to guide us. "By my election," he said, "you notify the public that the membership of our Society will not be confined to professional geographers but will include (those)... who desire to promote special researches by others... so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live." From classroom scientists and backyard adventurers with a camera to career storytellers who still put boots on the ground, we are all explorers. Infinite horizons of possibility lie ahead.