Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Expeditions

Remembering the Race to the South Pole 100 Years Ago

British Antarctica expedition at South Pole in 1912 standing near Roald Amundsen's tent. From left to right: Robert Scott, Titus Oates, Edward Wilson, and Edgar Evans. Credit: The Australian.

One hundred years ago this winter, two polar expeditions disembarked on the northern edges of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica with the goal of reaching the South Pole. One party, led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, reached 90º S on 14 December 1911. The second party, led by British officer Robert Falcon Scott, arrived a month later on 17 January 1912. Amundsen and his men returned to announce their victory, while Scott and his party of four men died on the trek back, succumbing to starvation and cold.

The meaning of Antarctic exploration has been cast in the forge of the Scott-Amundsen race ever since. There are good reasons for this. The event was significant geographically: representing the attempt to erase the last, substantive terra incognita from the modern world. It was also important politically: highlighting the competition between different Western powers on the eve of the Great War. For historians, it offered a way to demarcate the eras of exploration: signaling the key event in Antarctica’s “Heroic Age” and capping the end of a century of intense polar exploration. Lastly, it offered a great story: in the great race to the South Pole, writers have found heroes, villains, experts, and bumblers toiling on a landscape both severe and sublime.

Yet Scott and Amundsen were not the first to understand Antarctica’s power as a canvas of the imagination. Three hundred and forty years before Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen raced across Antarctica, this southern world filled the mind of Abraham Ortelius as he crafted his magisterial atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World). Terra Australis, as Antarctica was then called, sprawled over the page of Ortelius’s world map. Its ragged coastline reached South America and brushed up against the shores of New Guinea and the Spice Islands. It was a polar continent, but it was also a tropical one, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in the western Pacific to come within twenty degrees of the equator. Even accounting for the distortions of map projection, Terra Australis was a vast place, dwarfing the other continents of the world.

Abraham Ortelius's world map, published in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570)

Despite its imposing form, however, Terra Australis was built on fragile empirical foundations, something that Ortelius knew when he published the atlas. The title page of Theatrum, which depicts the continents in allegorical form as goddesses, expresses his ambivalence about the southern continent. At the top of the page, Europe sits on her throne, while Asia and Africa, semi-clothed and semi-barbarous, stand beneath her. At the bottom of the page reclines America the cannibal, naked except for her loin cloth. Terra Australis stands next to her, a figure incompletely revealed in a block of marble, a continent glimpsed but still unknown.

Title Page, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570)

In seeing explorers as sculptors, Ortelius was probably thinking about the sculptors of his day, artists like Michelangelo who had been moved by the spirit of Neo-Platonism and who saw it as their task to “liberate the figure imprisoned in marble.” From this perspective, the congruence between the artist and explorer was easy to see: they were both the messengers of objective truth, vectors of knowledge rather than its creators. Terra Australis waited for the explorer to chisel her out of the hard whiteness of high latitudes, revealing her true form to the world.

Terra Australis, Title Page (detail), Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

Yet Ortelius’s allegory of Antarctica carries different meanings today, a time when artists do not often describe their work as the liberation of perfect forms or pre-existing ideas, but as creative and subjective acts. If sculptors fashion their figures rather than reveal them, the half-rendered figure of Terra Australis has a different message. In order to bring this continent to life, the allegory suggests, the explorer must envision it and give it shape. Its storms, mountains, and coastlines – its very identity as a place – emerge as the vision of its creator, subject to ideas, expectations, and beliefs. The marble is not silent, of course. The continent of Antarctica, like every artistic medium, carries its own powerful agency (as Scott and his party would attest) imposing its own limits on the form revealed.

Had Ortelius been alive in 1912, the year of Scott and Amundsen’s great race to the South Pole, I suspect he would have felt the impulse to finish his Antarctic goddess, to give the continent her final unchanging and eternal form, installing her in his allegorical pantheon like a stone deity in the temple of Olympus. Yet the continent of Antarctica is not so fixed. While its coastlines and topography are now stable enough to secure within the pages of the modern Atlas, its meanings are not.

Lessons From The Last Frontier, Part I

Here is an account of an era in U.S. exploration. You will probably be familiar with the details:

The United States finds victory in war, increasing its power and reputation on the global stage. Still it remains locked in competition with international rivals. One rival, in particular, has become adept at the geopolitics of exploration, boosting its international standing through dangerous, breathtaking expeditions that capture the world’s attention. Despite the success of the United States on the battlefield, then, it lags behind in the theater of discovery.

Eventually the President of the United States makes an appeal before Congress: the country should enter the expeditionary race for reasons of science, humanity, and national prestige. Yet before this goal is realized, he dies in office. The new course is set, however, and the resources of the federal government enjoined. American military personnel lead the first expeditions, albeit with considerable input from civilian and scientific agencies.

After early missteps, the United States becomes the world leader in this new theater of discovery. Its geopolitical rival bows out of the fight. Yet at its moment of triumph, America seems to lose its way. The ultimate goal is reached, but it struggles to find new missions at the frontier. Two missions end in disaster, leading to intense criticism of federal agencies by press and public. The scientific community grows restless too, frustrated with mission priorities that tilt towards heroism, politics, and flag-waving rather than basic research.

Eventually the United States government begins to ramp down its discovery missions, unable to justify the risks and expense to a public that has grown frustrated, and at times disinterested, in the project of exploration.  Increasingly the mantle of exploration passes to wealthy individuals and private corporations.

If this seems like an account of the Space Age, it is really a history of the Polar Age, a period that witnessed intense U.S. exploration of the Arctic Regions from 1850 to 1910. Here are some extra details to the chronicle above:

When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1848, it gained territory, but still trailed other powers, particularly Britain, in international prestige. One way that Britain had gained this prestige was through geographical discovery – from the Pacific voyages of James Cook to the Arctic search for the Northwest Passage by James Ross, John Franklin, and others.

"The Great Race." Late 19th century cartoon of John Bull and Uncle Sam

Indeed, it was in sending an American expedition to search for John Franklin, who had gone missing in the late 1840s, that President Zachary Taylor hoped to include the United States in the project of Arctic exploration, an activity that had greater symbolic heft internationally than expeditions to the American West. Expeditions to find Franklin and explore the high Arctic met with broad support from elected officials, scientists, and the public, even after Taylor died suddenly in 1850.

The Search for Franklin. Published the 'Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep' 1880s. Credit: Science Photo Library

After explorers established Franklin’s tragic fate in the 1850s (he and his party on 129 men perished in 1848-1849), the goal of Arctic exploration shifted to geographical discovery, particularly the Polar Sea and the North Pole. Yet expeditions by George Washington DeLong (1879-81) and Adolphus Greely (1881-1884) resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven Americans. These catastrophes led to a great deal of soul searching by Congress, the press, geographical societies, and the general public. In particular, scientists had grown weary of supporting expeditions that returned very little in the way of usable data. By the early 1900s, then, the age of federally supported Arctic expeditions was over. The “Race to the Pole” relied entirely upon wealthy patrons, Arctic clubs, and commercial ventures.

The Loss of the Jeannette (under the command of George Washington DeLong) 1881

Why do I emphasize these parallels between Arctic exploration and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for the American space program today than the others regularly invoked by NASA and the space community. While astronauts are routinely compared to Columbus and Lewis and Clark, they are closer in roles to Elisha Kane, Robert Peary, and other explorers of the high Arctic. As much as space has been described as a New World and a New Frontier, it bears greater similarity to the Frozen North, not simply as an extreme environment but also as a geopolitical project, a subject I will take up in my next post.

The Greely Expedition

Front page of the London Illustrated News, 23 Aug 1884

On Monday 31 January, PBS will air a documentary called “The Greely Expedition” on American Experience. I served as an advisor on the project. Organized in conjunction with the first International Polar Year, the Greely Expedition was supposed to represent a new kind of Arctic exploration, one focused on international, collaborative science rather than pell mell dashes to the North Pole. In the end, however, the expedition signaled the end of serious collaboration between Arctic explorers and scientists for decades. Here’s an excerpt from my Greely chapter in The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

In June 1884, Commander Winfield Scott Schley cruised the waters of Smith Sound searching for Adolphus Greely and his missing party of American explorers. Greely had been in the Arctic for three years, establishing a scientific station at Lady Franklin Bay as a part of the International Polar Year. Two attempts to relieve Greely, in 1882 and 1883, had failed and Schley’s expedition represented the last reasonable chance of finding the Greely party alive. When one of Schley’s men discovered a note from Greely giving his location at Cape Sabine, Schley sent John Colwell and a small party to find him. Arriving at the site, Colwell found Greely along with six other emaciated men, survivors of the original party of twenty-five. In his narrative of the rescue, Schley described the scene:

Colwell crawled in [the tent] and took him by the hand, saying to him, “Greely, is this you?” “Yes,” said Greely in a faint, broken voice, hesitating and shuffling with his words, “Yes – seven of us left – here we are – dying –  like men. Did what I came to do – beat the best record.” Then he fell back exhausted.[i]

Rescuing Greely at Cape Sabine, Albert Operti

"Rescuing Greely and His Comrades at Cape Sabine" by Albert Operti

Schley was not on the beach himself and relied upon the reports of his men to piece together events. Yet his narrative, published almost a year after the return of the survivors, soon gained authority as a true-life account of the dramatic rescue. The New York Herald excerpted it liberally in its reports about the expedition. Later reminiscences, such as Munsey’s Magazine’s 1895 account of the expedition, presented the scene exactly as it had appeared in Schley’s narrative. Even David L. Brainard, one of the seven survivors of the Greely party, used Schley’s dialogue word for word in his 1929 account of the expedition, as well as in a more candid narrative that he published in 1940. Yet others on the beach recalled the meeting differently. One member of the rescue party reported that Greely first asked him “if we were Englishmen.” Another remembers Greely chastising them. “If we’ve got to starve . . . we can starve without your help . . . we were dying peacefully until you came.” Maurice Connell, one of Greely’s men, was unconscious at the time of the rescue. Yet for him the published account of Greely’s words did not ring true. In the margins of Schley’s book he wrote: “‘Give us something to eat!’ more probably.”[ii]

Whether or not Greely, delirious and close to death, uttered his pithy remarks is unclear. What is clear is that the scene Schley described offered a far more respectable image of Greely and his party than the ones that circulated for months in the popular press upon Greely’s return. Immediately after the return of Schley’s rescue expedition, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other papers deluged readers with lurid stories about the Greely party’s demise on Cape Sabine. They uncovered Greely’s execution of a man for stealing food. They reported on rumors of cannibalism among the party and discussed charges by Greely’s men that he was inept as a commander. Schley’s account did not erase the impact of these revelations, but arriving in the wake of the reports, offered a means of capping the well of controversy, as its extensive use later suggests.

Adolphus Greely

The controversy that engulfed Greely after his return eclipsed his expedition’s scientific work. Billed as the most ambitious research mission ever sent into the Arctic, Greely’s expedition marked instead the end of serious collaboration between scientists and Arctic explorers in the nineteenth century. In the decades to follow, explorers occasionally promoted their voyages as research expeditions, but their words had little bearing upon their expeditions or campaigns. New patrons of Arctic exploration freed explorers from having to appeal to the scientific community to raise funds or lobby Congress. From the point of view of scientists, Greely and other explorers had abandoned their research missions in order to give allegiance to new masters, private patrons and press moguls who cared little about Arctic science. Schley’s account of the rescue only underscored the point. Greely declared to Colwell that he “did what I came to do – beat the best record,” but he had not entered the Arctic to do anything of the kind. In fact, organizers of the Greely expedition had hoped quite the opposite: that Greely and his men would turn their backs on dangerous and irrelevant dashes to the North Pole, focus on methodical research, and embrace the collaborative spirit of the International Polar Year. To his credit, Greely carried out much of this research at first, but he eventually turned his attention to the geographical dashes so disapproved of by international organizers. Greely’s words on Cape Sabine, true or apocryphal, only confirmed suspicions that science had also been a casualty of his expedition.

The claim that the Greely expedition marked the end of explorers’ serious collaboration with the scientists stands at odds with most historical accounts. Because Greely brought back the most comprehensive and systematic set of observations ever produced by Americans in the Arctic, historians have often held it up as a sign that U.S. scientific exploration had come of age. For historian of science A. Hunter Dupree, the Greely expedition “laid the groundwork for a really scientific interest in Arctic and Antarctic problems.”The wealth of data collected by Greely and his men has led William Barr to revisit the events of the expedition in hopes of illustrating its scientific importance. Expedition historian A. L. Todd agrees, calling Greely’s official narrative “one of the most important source books of arctic data available to the world of science.” Focused on quality of expedition data, however, these works leave unexamined the reactions of scientists, press, and public back home. Fixing our attention here, we see a different picture emerge: a diminished role for science in Arctic exploration, a waning collaboration between explorers and researchers, and a decline of scientific rhetoric in expeditionary campaigns.[iii]

The reasons for this change extend beyond the expedition. Greely and his rescuers may have sown the seeds of controversy by their actions in the Arctic, but these actions only bloomed into scandal because of important cultural and institutional changes back home. That science fell victim to scandal after Greely’s return reflected a new trend in newspaper journalism that put a premium on critical, often sensational, reporting. This was a far cry from the 1850s, when reporters generally avoided controversy in their attempts to portray Arctic explorers as American heroes. By the 1880s, however, writers proved far more willing, even eager, to expose expedition scandals even when it came at explorers’ expense.

The estrangement of explorers and scientists also grew out of changes in the patronage of Arctic exploration. Whereas Henry Grinnell had encouraged his explorers to campaign as a way of raising funds and creating broad coalitions among scientists and the public, the deep pockets of new patrons such as the New York Herald made such actions unnecessary. Flush with funds and backed by promotional power of their patrons, explorers had little need to campaign. Greely took his orders from the Army Signal Corps, not the popular press, but many of the effects were the same. With his expedition already organized and underwritten by the Corps, Greely felt no incentive to write, lecture, or rub elbows with scientists or other groups in the months before his departure. As a result, Greely established few of the personal bonds with scientists and others that had so benefitted Elisha Kane and helped to insulate him from his critics…


[i]. Two of the twenty-five members of the expedition were native Greenlanders, Jens Edward and Thorlip Frederick Christiansen. Quotation is from W. S. Schley, The Rescue of Greely (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 222.

[ii]. “The Rescue of Greely,” New York Herald,” 26 March 1885; Frank Lewis Ford, “The Heroes of the Icy North,” Munsey’s Magazine 14 (1895): 296; David L. Brainard, The Outpost of the Lost: An Arctic Adventure (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1929), 312; Brainard, Six Came Back: The Arctic Adventures of David L. Brainard (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1940), 301; “if we were Englishmen . . .” comes from Charles Harlow, “Greely at Cape Sabine,” Century Magazine (undated) in Adolphus Washington Greely Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. “If we’ve got to starve . . .” is from Frank B. Copley, “The Will to Live,” American Magazine, February (1911): 502-3. “‘Give us something to eat!’” comes from newspaper clipping “Sergeant Connell”, 31 May 1885, Box 74, Greely Papers, Library of Congress.

[iii]. A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957), 193; William Barr, The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year, 1882-83 (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1985); A. L. Todd, Abandoned (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961).

Even Better Than the Real Thing

X-15 attached to a B-52 bomber prior to release.

We’re free to fly the crimson sky
the sun won’t melt our wings tonight
take me higher
you take me higher

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” U2

In 1996, professor Richard Bartle wrote that explorers “try to find out as much as they can… mapping [the world's] topology.” Bartle was not talking about astronauts or cavers, but gamers.  A developer of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Bartle challenged the idea of MUDs as games in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they were complex social environments that attracted different players for different reasons: to gain points, to socialize with others , to kill opponents, or to explore the game environment.

Richard Bartle

To call a basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing gamer an explorer might seem absurd. There is difference between exploring virtual worlds and real ones. Still Bartle’s paper raises interesting questions. Is an explorer defined by places traveled, by worldly action? Or is “explorer” an identity, something that exists as a mode of personality? If the latter, does the real world matter at all? If so, how much? What is the role, if any, of simulation within the field of exploration?

This last question may seem better suited for science-fiction literature than sociology. The sci-fi world is populated by virtual travelers: Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game, Neo of The Matrix, CLU of Tron, Henry Case of Neuromancer, and Jake Sully of Avatar. The list is long.

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Yet simulations exist in the “real world” of exploration too. NASA conducts a number of “analog” expeditions: in the desert, in the Arctic, and underwater to provide training and allow trouble-shooting for other missions. Says NASA:

Analogs provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.

They have other functions too. Anthropologist Valerie Olson points out that analog missions function as justifications for the broader idea of human spaceflight. The analog mission community tend to see these simulations as more “real” than others, authentic human programs rather than robotic expeditions or computer simulations.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), for example, takes pride in the danger and scientific rigor of each expedition. Says one NEEMO technician “This is a real and real shit happens.” [Quoted from Olson, "American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies," Ph.D Thesis, Rice University, p. 63]

NEEMO's Aquarius Habitat

Yet “mere” computer simulations also contribute to modern exploration in ways that cannot be ignored. X-15 test pilots such as Neil Armstrong (yes that Neil Armstrong) used flight simulators to train, preparing themselves for the difficult conditions of hypersonic travel 65 miles (100 km) about the earth.

In the end, however, simulators could not adequately prepare pilots for the challenges of flying in the upper atmosphere. At lower altitudes, the X-15 behaved like a plane, and pilots relied on wing surfaces to steer through an ocean of air. At higher altitudes the X-15 acted like a rocket,  and pilots used reaction thrusters to change direction. Moving from one set of controls to the other at the boundaries of space, however, proved extremely difficult especially when traveling 4000 mph (6500 kph).

X-15 cockpit

Engineers at North American solved this problem by placing one of the X-15 flight simulators (the MH-96) into the X-15 itself. The pilot would, in effect, fly the simulator. The simulator then translated the pilot’s actions to the aircraft. As Steve Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo:

The MH-96 could cause the “real” X-15 to fly like an “ideal” one, which would make it behave exactly the same under all flight conditions, from the vacuum of space right down to the ground. It would automatically mix the reaction controls and aerodynamic controls, so that the pilot only needed one control stick, whether flying in the atmosphere or in space, or during reentry. [Mindell, 58]

In short, simulators were not just for practice: they were an integral part of the mission itself. As for the test pilots, they were not entirely unlike the pj-clad gamer holed up in the basement. Humans can only survive at the boundaries of space by being protected from space. While the pilot/astronaut is going to places never traveled, she is doing so cocooned within a space suit, cockpit, and environmentally controlled capsule. Says Mindell:

The X-15 was an unusual craft to fly. The pilot could not see the nose, and he could not see the wings. His full pressure suit wrapped him up tight and isolated him from the outside world. He could not feel or touch anything directly other than the suit and gloves. He could smell nothing other than the pure oxygen he was breathing. In [test pilot Milt] Thompson’s words, “I was in my own little world. I was comfortable and secure and protected from harm.” [Mindell, Digital Apollo, 54]

This is the irony of exploration technology in general, and simulation technology in particular: they allow us to go longer, further, and faster even as they prevent us from experiencing such feats directly. They take us higher into universe even as they keep it out of reach.


Science and Exploration

"The Artist in His Museum" Charles Wilson Peale (1822) credit: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

I’ve been slow to update the past two weeks, due to the collision of teaching and writing projects. One of these projects, an essay for an edited collection, looks at the relationship of science and exploration in historical context. I’m including the first paragraphs of the intro below, just so you don’t think I’m playing foosball.

Westerners began to think differently about exploration in the nineteenth century. Whereas they once talked about it as a fascination, a symbol of progress, they began referring to it a “fever”: something rampant, contagious, and immune to reason.[1] During this period, explorers poured out of Europe and the United States for regions remote and dangerous. Some raced to the limits of latitude, to stand first at the polar axes.

"David Livingstone" Life and Explorations of David Livingstone (1880)

Others set off for the equatorial regions seeking lost tribes, lost cities, and lost explorers. Survey expeditions mapped the American West, inventoried the ocean depths, and facilitated the “Scramble for Africa.” States sponsored some of these efforts. Museums and universities sponsored others. Meanwhile private adventurers set off to write, photograph, and hunt their way through the world’s remaining terrae incognitae.

Three Years of Arctic Service, Adolphus Greely (1886)

Taken together these activities produced oceans of text: articles, technical papers, and personal narratives. One writer for Nature, buried by stacks of expedition literature waiting to be reviewed, wondered what was driving the process. Did exploration fever grow out of a deeper love of science, a “craving for knowledge by stronger stimulants than can be obtained by books” ? Or was it —as the metaphor of fever implied— beyond human control, an affliction activated by some instinctive desire, “a remote ancestral habit which still clings to us.” If it was the latter then science would seem to be artifice, a veneer applied to expeditionary endeavors in order to mask true motives, deeper and atavistic urges that lured explorers up mountains and into malarial jungles.[2]


[1] Robinson, Michael, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 159-164; Robinson, “Maybe I Was Wrong” http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2009/01/29/maybe-i-was-wrong/

[2] “Two Amateur Explorers,” Nature 13: 264 (3 Feb 1876)

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