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The state of American ornithology - the AOU


Reporting on building a canal
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I was chairman of a commission to make a report on the feasibility and the problems connected with a sea level canal across the Isthmus of Panama. And this was a… something dreamed up by the… I guess the oil industry after the Alaska oil fields had been discovered and they had these huge tankers which were very slow getting through the canal, many of them couldn't get through the canal at all and so they thought it would be wonderful to have a sea level canal. And, believe it or not, the first proposal came from some engineers to take the leftover atomic bombs from… that hadn't been dropped on some other country and stick them into the isthmus there and blow them all up and then have the sea level canal. The fact that this was right next to Balboa and Panama cities, cities of around a million people, all of them would be exposed to a rain of radioactive material, that apparently never occurred to these particular engineers. That is just a little side comment. However, even if the canal was built by digging it out and it… it was quite feasible, there was no real problem. However the… at certain tide stages, in fact most of them, the Pacific end of the canal was 15 feet higher than the Atlantic end, so there was a constant flow of water going through. Furthermore, right in front of where the Pacific end ought to have been were some of the most productive shrimp fishery grounds, which is a very important industry in Panama and that undoubtedly would have been… disturbed at least, and probably destroyed by this canal. And there are poisonous sea snakes in the bay of Panama which undoubtedly would have been… gone down into the Pacific, into the… the Caribbean, and what this would have done to the bathing resorts of Jamaica and whatnot, anybody can guess. And, on the other hand, there were some very dangerous coelenterates, jellyfish, that are in the Caribbean, and that might have been carried…. Well, anyhow, our committee met two or three times and discussed it with all the experts and we finally delivered a very negative report, and I don't think it is due to that negative report, but at any how the sea level canal was never built. The oil industry finally decided they would build a pipeline across the isthmus and it was much easier and perhaps, oh yes, I am quite sure, quite a good deal less expensive to pump the oil from one tanker through the oil pipe line to… from the Pacific to the Atlantic, rather than have these big… big ships go across.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: Panama, Alaska, National Science Foundation, Balboa Island, Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Jamaica

Duration: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008