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Exploring the world; exploring the mind

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2011 - All of us carry around with us an inclination to explore our world. For some it is subconscious; for others, a reason for being. When I made application to join the Explorers Club, I wrote of my interest in exploring the archaeology of my home territory, the St. Louis region. In it, I also wrote in praise of the rewards of a most intimate form of exploration, contemplation of one's own small place in the universe and a puzzling of its mysteries. The first requires a good pair of sneakers and a bit of moxie; the latter is accomplished sitting still and prowling around one's own sensibilities.

I recommend these explorations as both rigorous and rewarding with surprises. I recognize also, if you can swing it, the value and excitement of more dramatic explorations that take you far away, to places you've never been before, and occasionally, rarely, to places no one ever has been before.

This weekend, the national Explorers Club is paying a call on the local chapter. The club has dedicated itself to exploration in its many manifestations since 1904 -- a number that resonates in St. Louis as the moment of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. There'll be meetings and lectures. St. Louis Community College anthropology professor Michael J. Fuller and I are leading a tour to the Cahokia mounds, one of the great prehistoric sites of the world. Cahokia is rather like that prophet who is not without honor except in his own country. Have you been there? If not, think about a visit.

I'm excited about taking out-of-town visitors with serious scientific and archaeological interests to Cahokia, where an extraordinary Native American civilization reached full flowering, then vanished. Besides the artifacts and mounds that speak with such affecting dignity of this people and their lives, the explanatory material available in the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is thoughtful, serious and accessible, forming a most satisfying and dynamic intellectual combination.

The sharpest focus of the Explorers Club weekend, however, is not the tour Fuller and I will conduct to the east but a dinner, to be Saturday at the History Museum in Forest Park. It will feature the presentation of awards named for one of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century, and the ne plus ultra promoter of exploration and adventure on a grand international scale. He was Lowell Thomas. He was a household word in my growing-up years -- one of the great voices and also genuine public intellects of the early years of broadcasting. He also had a great sense of humor.

Lowell Thomas. What a striking contrast he provides to commercial broadcasters now. His appeal is not only his exploits but his indefatigable curiosity. No big surprise: He began his professional life as a journalist. But as he went along, his life gathered complexity as a magnet draws to it iron filings, so much so that in its fascinating totality the august taxonomists of Library of Congress had trouble figuring out just what niche Thomas and his papers belonged in. He landed up in category "C" -- Auxiliary Sciences of History - in its CT subcategory, which embraces biography. Inasmuch as he was not only a writer and editor but also an explorer, a pioneer documentary filmmaker, an explorer himself and the man who repositioned Capt. T.E. Lawrence as Lawrence of Arabia, the idea of his being a mere biographer seems rather limiting.

The award named for him and presented annually by the Explorers Club has considerable weight. After all, the club has participated in a number of historic firsts: Its members have been members of the first explorations to reach the North Pole, and the first to the South Pole, and the first to the summit of Mount Everest, and the first to the deepest point in the ocean, and the first to the surface of the moon. Among past winners of the award are astronaut Mary Cleave, mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Here, provided by the club, are the names of this year's winners and brief descriptions of their work:

Edmund R. Edwards, Patricia Vargas Casanova and Claudio P. Cristino will receive the Lowell Thomas Award for their studies of the culture of Eastern Polynesia, and the enigmatic, monumental sculptures called moai that stand on the shores of Easter Island.

Albert Yu-Min Lin, a research scientist, wins for his attempting to find the tomb of Genghis Khan and to protect a sacred region of Mongolia.

Thomas E. Levy has revolutionized the dating of the Biblical land of Edom, which is an iron age settlement located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. Levy has pushed the sequence about 500 years earlier than the scholarly consensus. He has brought researchers closer than ever to testing for the potential existence of "King Solomon's Mines."

Brent S. Stewart is a senior research scientist praised for studies of the mysterious whale shark and other migratory marine species.

William C. Stone is one of the world's foremost expeditionary cavers and a proponent of using technology to help explorers survive and thrive as they challenge new frontiers.

Kenneth R. Wright and Ruth M. Wright are partners whose work on water conservation has brought enduring benefits to the environment, water resources and communities in both North and South America.

There's cause for celebration here for all of us, Explorers Club members and not. But the cheering, while focused on men and women recognized for their work, has a broad, philosophical reach in addition to its individual concentration.

Built in, in every case after all, is science, that broad and brilliant field of human endeavor that ennobles us all, widens our world, cures our illnesses, feeds us and quenches our thirsts, designs various transportations to take us places near and far, heats and cools our buildings and allows buildings to reach the skies. Everywhere we look, exploration and science affect us and ultimately extract order from chaos.

Too often nowadays, all too often, both dimwits and demagogues anathematize science as some sort of elitist plot.

Doors of the mind left wide open to science and exploration are passages to the light of truth. Slammed shut: oblivion.

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