Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Explorers

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.

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.


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.


Academics vs. Explorers

Last week explorer Mikael Strandberg published an interesting post on his blog about Academics vs. Explorers . The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Mikael Strandberg

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, academics usually approach their subject matter from a specific viewpoint or research methodology. For example, anthropologists, field biologists, archeologists, and historians all have different frameworks for understanding the world and its peoples. Information obtained from explorers (or other fields) often doesn’t fit very well within these frameworks and, therefore, remains difficult to integrate. Most travelers and explorers, by necessity, need to approach new peoples and new regions with versatility, sensitivity, and creativity. They do not have the time to settle in one place the way an anthropologist does. They cannot carry thousands of pounds of equipment the way archeologists do. They cannot afford to set up their travels as controlled experiments.

Neil Armstrong: subject & expert

Second, academics often don’t know how to categorize explorers. For example, as a historian of exploration, I am interested in the culture, experience, activities, ideas, and biases of explorers. This is the subject of my research. Working with explorers is exciting for me because it sometimes gives me insight into the historical expeditions that I focus on in my work. But it can sometimes also be uncomfortable because I don’t know which hat to wear. Am I a colleague listening to a fellow expert in the field? Or am I an anthropologist, analyzing my subject for information about his or her ideas, beliefs, and behaviors?

Still I think that academics and explorers would benefit from closer contact.

One way explorers might help professionals in general (and academics in particular) is in thinking outside the disciplinary box. Sometimes my greatest insights come from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often sophisticated observers of events and their place within them.

One way that explorers might benefit from academics is in looking at exploration more critically. I often hear travelers and explorers speak about exploration in rather visionary terms: as a way of escaping overly commercialized and routinized life in order to find a “core” self….or as a deep-seated, instinctive behavior that humans express in order to achieve their full humanity. While these ideas are inspiring, they don’t really conform with data on the history of explorers and exploration.

Christopher Columbus, Robert Peary, and NASA astronauts all reached “new worlds” far away from the civilizations they knew. Yet all of them remained deeply invested in the practical and personal payoffs of exploration back home (eg. fame, glory, professional advancement). My research leads me to believe that the desire to explore flows as much from the influence of modern culture as it does from our innate drives or inner curiosity.

In the end, however, I am fine if academics and explorers don’t see eye-to-eye as long as they keep talking to each other face to face.

For other posts here on related subjects see:

The Myth of Pure Experience
The Problem of Human Missions to Mars
The Explorer Gene

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,643 other followers