Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Announcements

Exploration Roundup

Old Montreal

Notes from Montreal
Montreal: place of cobblestones and canals, of spicy Pho and this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting (and Philosophy of Science Association meeting, PSA).

The conference was my introduction to the Toronto bloggers who are tearing through the HSS/PSA neighborhood. I met Jaipreet Virdi who writes From the Hands of Quacks and Aaron Wright, author of False Vacuum. Justin Curtis and Mike Thicke from The Bubble Chamber were also in attendance but we didn’t cross paths. To all of you: keep up the excellent work!

Of the travel and exploration panels I attended, I was most impressed with a talk by Christopher Parsons (University of Toronto) on 17th century French settlers in North America. He argued that these settlers organized species according to a generalized “folk taxonomy.” While exploration scholars often highlight reports of marvels and wonders, Parsons described the reverse: settlers cataloging new plants and animals according to the most general and conventional of categories.

A Short Rant
One thing I also appreciated about Christopher’s talk was the way he delivered it: framed by issues, guided by images, and given from notes. Some other presenters did not do these things adequately: giving little context,  offering no images or outlines, and reading from the text.

I don’t understand this.

Most historians make their living by teaching. Most of the ones I know are attentive, innovative, passionate teachers. They care about communicating ideas. They engage their students and foster their interests in history.

What happens when we go to conferences? What force transmutes vibrant instructors into paper-reading scholastics? Who decided that the best way to present one’s ideas was to sound like a medieval instructor lecturing at the University of Paris?

I’ve heard many arguments for why academics read papers: “It’s the only way to fit my material into 20 minutes.” “I need to be precise.” “I get too nervous to go from notes.””I can write my papers in a conversational style.”

All of this may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that someone speaking from notes is easier to understand than someone reading from a text; the words and cadence are more natural and, I think, better able to carry the weight of a complex argument. I don’t have hard data on this, but consider this: most of us would recoil at the idea of reading a lecture to our students. If we wouldn’t suffer this upon students, why do it to our peers? What’s the point of maximizing time, precision, or peace of mind if, in the process, we lose the attention of our audience?

Ethics of Exploration
In other news, Peter Stanford challenges the heroism of modern day adventurers in his article in the Independent (Thanks to Richard Nelsson for alerting me to this). The article complements longer treatments of this issue by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) and Maria Coffey (Where the Mountains Casts Its Shadow).

Spaceflight
Curtis Forbes, writing at The Bubble Chamber, discusses the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581g and the hype its generated in the media as the “Goldilocks Planet.” Forbes convincingly argues that the eagerness to imagine this world as an earth-like place tells us more about culture here than environmental conditions there. Meanwhile, Cosmic Variance has raised questions about the concentration of space science funding into the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to replace the Hubble Telescope in 2014.

As NASA enters the post-Constellation era, I think we will be seeing a lot more debates about science and space funding.


Autumn

Autumn in Bavaria, Wassily Kandinsky, 1908

Poets coo about autumn as a gentle season, a time of harvests and golden light. It is Dickinson’s cool orchard where “the berry’s cheeks are plumper” and Keats’ quiet time scattered with grain “drows’d with the fume of poppies.”

But berries and poppies have no place in my autumn, which announces itself to summer like an air-raid siren. Deadlines have arrived for two articles (on Mars and the historiography of exploration). Copy edits for a third are overdue. My book project, drows’d with the fumes of neglect, crawls into a corner to die. Students flutter and spin towards my office like falling leaves. Classes begin in three days.

Wonderful, wonderful posts wait to be written, to be plucked from the golden orchards of science and exploration. They hang unripe, waiting for more fertilizer, or maybe more pesticide.

So no deep thoughts today, just some links that I’ve found:

Apollo 11 Launch, 1969. http://launiusr.wordpress.com/

Roger Launius’s Blog. Launius is a sharp historian who focuses on the history of space exploration. I’m currently reading his book Robots in Space and was excited to see that he has entered the blogosphere. If you want my recommendation of things to read on his site, check out his piece on the popularity of the Apollo Program.

From the Hands of Quacks. Jaipreet Virdi’s history of science blog covers a number of topics, from history of medicine to the challenges of being a grad student. It’s got a nice list of links too.

Bering in Mind I can’t think of a way of connecting Bering’s research psychology blog to exploration, so I won’t try. I like his pithy writing style and spin on contemporary issues from a variety of perspectives including evolutionary biology. His latest post on polyamory is also well-done in pointing out the widespread use of the naturalistic fallacy in defending human sex behaviors.

Cosmic Variance. A group blog on physics and astrophysics that is hosted by Discover magazine. The posts often give a lot more depth and perspective on astronomical discoveries than regular media outlets provide.

Ok, done. May your autumn be filled with berries and poppies – or poppy derivatives – as your needs dictate.


100,000

Time to Eat the Dogs logged its 100,000th view yesterday. It’s only a matter of time now before TBS offers me a late-night show on exploration, but I want you to know that I’m not going to let it go to my head.

Let’s face it: the biggest blogs rack up 100,000 views in a few hours. And the 100,000 number doesn’t say anything about the viewers who found their way here through some horrible accident (such as searching for “naked men at sea” or “cooking squirrel”).

Still, I’m happy. I started this blog because I was frustrated with the way people talk about exploration, or more precisely, the way they weren’t talking about it.

While scholars from many fields study exploration, most of their discussions tend to be tightly confined. Debates unfold in the pages of poorly subscribed, peer-reviewed journals. And while academic communities talk past each other, they are also talking past the public: the thousands of people who are fascinated by exploration, who read articles and buy books on the Apollo missions, Christopher Columbus, Ernest Shackleton, and Lewis and Clark.

Blogging here has put me in touch with people from all of these different communities. And their feedback has influenced my work. It has changed scope of my projects and the way that I think about them.

So thanks for stopping by, offering suggestions, leaving comments.

Thanks too to the other bloggers who have given guidance and support: Ting & Tankar, Deep Sea News, Ether Wave Propaganda, World’s Fair, Dispersal of Darwin, The Beagle Project, The Renaissance Mathematicus, and others.

You’ve made me a better scholar in the process.

Why We Need a New History of Exploration

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Today, just some announcements:

Common-Place, the online history journal,  just published my article, “Why We Need a New History of Exploration.” You can read it here.

SciCafe, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is presenting “Darwin on Facebook: How Culture Transforms Human Evolution” a presentation by anthropologist Peter Richerson.  “SciCafe features cutting-edge science, cocktails, and conversation and takes place on the first Wednesday of every month. For more information, please visit amnh.org/scicafe

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) opens its new exhibition Hidden Histories of Exploration today in London. The exhibition website is worth checking out. I hope to be doing a more extensive write-up of the exhibition (and curator Felix Driver) soon.

New Arctic Exhibition

Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio, Gerard Mercator, 1611. A polar projection showing islands and open water at the North Pole.

Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio, Gerard Mercator, 1611. A polar projection showing islands and open water at the North Pole.

Apologies for the spare postings over the last two weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of out of town projects. Last week I was down in DC where Story House Productions is putting together a documentary on the Cook-Peary North Pole Controversy of 1909. They interviewed me in the historical newspaper room of the Newseum (just off the National Mall). Museums are strange places anyway, but after dark they become positively surreal.

News History Gallery, Newseum, Washington DC.

News History Gallery, Newseum, Washington DC.

I was also up in Maine working out the kinks of an exhibition I am curating at the Portland Museum of Art called “The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration in American Culture.”  The show examines many of the same themes as my book (no surprise). But where my book was limited to 18 black-and-white prints, the exhibition delivers a much broader range of paintings, photos, and illustrations. The point is to show how the Arctic of these images represents a hybrid-world: a vision of polar regions, colored by the aesthetics  and preoccupations of the Americans who traveled there.

Gigantic Iceberg Seen By the Arctic Ships, From a Sketch by an Officer of the Valorous, Illustrated London News, 1875

Gigantic Iceberg Seen By the Arctic Ships, From a Sketch by an Officer of the Valorous, Illustrated London News, 1875

You can see some of the images of the show here.

I gave an interview about the exhibition on Channel 6 while I was there.

The show opens this Saturday and runs through 21 June.



New Worlds

Life cover from 22 February 1954 featuring shot of film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Life cover from 22 February 1954 featuring shot of film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

At times I think about getting rid of my laptop, dumping it into the trash or tossing it over the guardrail on I-84. It works perfectly fine.  But its role in my life increasingly bothers me. It feels invasive, a tool that has become a crutch, mediating almost all of the activities of my life: my communications with students, friends, and colleagues, my meeting place for committees, spreadsheet for calculating grades, library for reading newspapers and searching archives, store for ordering books, entertainment center for films, sports pages, and blogs.

typistsillouette

I find myself thinking — dolefully, wistfully — of paper and pencil, of writing notes on index cards, thwacking out papers on a typewriter, writing letters on rough-edged stationary, reading books slowly and deliberately on my couch rather than gutting them like fish on the deck of a ship.

Most of all, I don’t like what my laptop does to the way I think. I used to spend a great deal of time tunneling in on subjects, digging into the arcana of history like a wood bore. Now I feel I spend a great deal of time skittering over subjects, a flat rock thrown over a calm pond. I cannot place all of the blame on my laptop. It comes from having too many things to do.

Being too distracted is a lament common to Americans and Europeans since the 18th century. Do our lives benefit from the conveniences of modern life? Or are these conveniences a subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience? A laminate that protects us from the authentic life? Or, as Thoreau puts it:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear… [Walden, ch. 2]

I think Thoreau draws this dichotomy a bit too starkly. My feeling is that all of life is authentic; experiences are real no matter how mediated they are by technology or modern convenience. Still I’m not letting my laptop completely off the hook.  For all of its impressive powers, the networked computer is crack cocaine for the skittering mind, the gateway drug of associational thinking.

Still, I won’t throw it away. First, it doesn’t belong to me and I would have to pay back my dean. Second, it has brought me into contact with fascinating people and amazing places, a New World of information that I absorb in bits and pieces.

Ok, enough deep thoughts. Here are some new links I’ve uncovered in my skittering hops across the pond.

Google recently worked out a deal with Life Magazine, scanning decades of photos and putting them in a historical archive online. This is a fabulously rich collection of twentieth-century images, particularly in the field of exploration. Try out, for example, terms such as expedition, voyage, underwater, capsule, and planet. You can also search Google for life photos directly – just enter your search term followed by “source: life”. When this returns a list, specify “images” in the tab at the top.

The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library offers a much smaller set of archival images, five to be exact. But the five images in question, European maps of discovery from 1520-1792, are too rich to be missed. Each map offers a snapshot of European geographical knowledge of the world, from the shape of continents and novel modes of map projection, to elaborate cartouches showing the lifeways of native peoples.

big-dead-place

Finally two sites  I just learned about today. The first is Big Dead Place, an online journal devoted to Antarctica, edited by Nicholas Johnson, author of a book of the same name published by Feral House Publishing in 2005.  Johnson has some great interviews and analysis of South Polar exploration.

For an impressively massive list of all things Antarctica, also check out Dr. Elizabeth Leane’s Representations of Antarctica which breaks up the subject into categories of fiction (juvenile and adult), short stories, poetry, films and television, as well as literary and cultural criticism.

Thank You FHSA

logo_hss

This morning the Forum for the History of Science in America presented me with their 2008 Book Prize for my book The Coldest Crucible. Officer Paul Lucier presented the prize:

On behalf of the membership and officers of the Forum for the History of Science in America, it is my pleasure to announce that the 2008 Forum Prize Committee has unanimously agreed to award this year’s book prize to Michael F. Robinson for The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, published in 2006 by the University of Chicago….this is a history of science of a very different sort. Instead of focusing on how the explorers collected specimens or tried to map the icy unknown, Robinson explains, in very clear and refreshingly concise fashion, how the Arctic and its explorers tried to collect sponsors and funding, and how they tried to present themselves and their expeditions as relevant to a large public.

My last time in Pittsburgh was in 1998, also at a History of Science meeting. It was the occasion of my first academic paper. I read it, hunched over a podium, to four elderly men in varying states of consciousness. I was tense, the paper was dry, but I don’t think anyone was awake enough to notice. The paper made me wonder why I spent so much time working on these subjects when no one was ever going to read or care about them.

It feels particularly good, then, to receive this award in Pittsburgh (at the same hotel no less). Thank you FHSA! Thanks too to for the generous write-ups in the Hartford Courant and the University of Hartford’s UNotes Daily.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,645 other followers