Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Explorers

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).

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

Exploration Round-Up

So much exploration news rolls through the wires that it’s impossible to write posts about all of it, even a small fraction of it.  So I tweet when I can, but 140 characters is not a lot of space to offer analysis or even useful links. So I am going to the occasional round-up here: a short, annotated, links page to developing stories. Think of it as a expeditionary snack: more calories than a tweet, less filling than a post.

Polar Regions

The biggest exploration story out of the high Arctic in recent weeks is adventurer Bear Grylls’s report of finding human bones, tools, and large campfire remains near King William’s Island. He suggested that these might have been the remains and artifacts of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845. Russell Potter has been following the story closely on his blog Visions of the North.


Roger Launius’s Blog profiles former NASA administrator Dan Goldin lecture about NASA’s efforts in astrobiology. The Journal of Cosmology just published a special issue Colonizing Mars:  The Human Mission to the Red Planet. Many of the essays are quite pro-Mars. Mine is not. In The Problem of Human Missions to Mars I discuss the reasons why plans for human missions to Mars (and there have been many) never seem to go anywhere.



Mikael Strandberg takes up the issue of Fakes and Cheats in exploration, focusing on the motives of explorers in lying about their claims. This issue has a long history, one that I’ve written about here in regards to the North Pole Controversy of 1909. Yet its a subject that never seems to goes away. The claims of high-altitude climbers routinely come into question today. In January, ExplorersWeb wrote an editorial about rampant fabrication of claims by climbers in the Karakorum. More recently, Jake Norton, author of The MountainWorld Blog, discussed the revelation of speed-climber Christian Stangl’s faked climb of K2.  The BBC also challenged Oh Eun-Sun’s claim to be the fastest women to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. Yet not everyone’s ducking the hard routes. Those Who Dared profiles the survival stories of climbers who barely made it back. And for some brilliant photos of climbers in the field, The MountainWorld Blog features photos from Sir Younghusband’s 1903 expedition to Tibet. The Asia Society’s Rivers of Ice project offers a more sobering photographic record of the Himalaya today, chronicling, in mega-pixel detail, the effects of global warming on glaciers.

Mr X

There is a scholar, call him Mr X, who received his training within the academy, but who found it wasn’t enough. He wanted more: to move outside of his wonky circle of colleagues, to engage the public, to communicate ideas in a manner that was artful as well as illuminating.

While his peers wrote difficult books and debated obscure issues at their meetings, Mr X took part in the communication revolution that was bringing academic ideas into greater contact with the wider world. He wrote shorter pieces for broader audiences, telling one colleague “Publish small works often and you will dominate all of literature.” So when Mr X was offered a position far away from his bustling city home, he took it, feeling that his community was no longer defined by geography but by ideas, communicated through the new social technologies.

The new social technologies wern’t blogs or Web 2.0 applications, but the pamphlet and the salon. Mr X is not Steven Jay Gould or PZ Myers but Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, an 18th century French explorer and polymath who led a geodetic expedition to Lapland in 1736.

Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. Notice Maupertuis' left hand flattening the globe.

Maupertuis is usually remembered as the scholar who described the actual shape of the earth by measuring a degree of arc at high latitude. In so doing, he helped settle a dispute with French cartographer Jacques Cassini over whether the earth was prolate (that is, longer along its N-S axis), or oblate (longer along its diameter at the equator). Cassini believed that the earth was prolate like a lemon. Maupertuis, following in the footsteps of Newton, helped prove that it was oblate like a jelly donut.

A prolate spheroid

An oblate spheroid

Yet as Mary Terrall points out in her book The Man Who Flattened The Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences of the Enlightenment, Maupertuis’s most interesting work takes place back home as he tries to make a name for himself in this new theater of conversation, a world that connects elite academies and educated polite society.

As I read about the radical effects of social technology on academic writing and reputation today, I wonder: how much of this is really new? Perhaps the boundaries between elite institutions and general public have always been squishier than we’ve made them out to be. Blogs and twitter feeds feel so new, so world changing, because they have in fact changed the world we live in, the way we communicate with friends, peers, and random passers-by. Yet it’s bound to feel like this. The flood feels strongest when you’re standing in the middle of the stream.  The story of Maupertuis makes me think that it is a seasonal event, a spring flood that returns with some regularity, the latest iteration of social technology (and sociable science writing) that probably dates to the printing press. Vive le café.

The Discovery of HMS Investigator

HMS Investigator

In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 men sailed into the Arctic aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of the Northwest Passage. They were never heard from again. The mystery of the search for Franklin took decades to solve. Theories about the causes of the expedition’s demise continue to the present.

The irony of the Franklin expedition is that it accomplished more in failure than it ever could have in success. The disappearance of the party sparked dozens of relief expeditions from Britain and led to a comprehensive survey of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and its native peoples.

For the United States, which entered the search effort in 1850, the rescue of Franklin became the driving force for U.S. exploration of the Arctic, a 60-year effort that established the polar regions as next frontier after the American west.

Last week an expedition organized by Parks Canada found HMS Investigator which set out to find the Franklin party in 1850. In taking up the search for Investigator, Parks Canada made itself a part of the 150 year old legacy of the Franklin search. It also established a place in a much larger lost-explorer theme that became dominant in the 19th century as explorers set out to find other explorers who had gone missing.

Yet in his editorial about the discovery, Canadian Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice is eager to point the different, distinctly modern, uniquely Canadian elements of the Parks Canada search.

Jim Prentice, Canadian Minister of the Environment

First, it was done on the cheap:

This modern-day expedition was typically Canadian: quietly conceived and carried out on a modest budget from an unassuming cluster of 10 orange Mountain Equipment Co-op tents scattered on the rocky shore of Mercy Bay.

Second, the crew was quintessentially Canadian:

The senior marine archaeologist manning the sonar was Calgary-born Ryan Harris. Alongside him were archaeologists Jonathan Moore, who hails from Kingston, Ont., and Thierry Boyer of Montreal. Also present was soft-spoken John Lucas, a Canadian of Inuit ancestry and the senior Parks Canada officer for Aulavik National Park.

With some substitutions of names and technology, this statement sounds a lot like the patriotic boosterism of the British Admiralty or the American Geographical Society 150 years ago.

Ultimately Prentise’s interest in showing this effort as ‘exceptionally’ Canadian make it sound a lot like other efforts in 19th century frontier conquering. While their are the usual nods to the importance of archeology and the history of indigenous peoples, he ends his editorial on the subject that was of highest importance to the Great Powers in the late 1800s: territorial rights.

Most importantly, however, the quest for the Investigator celebrates our Arctic heritage and speaks to the exercise of our sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago today.

Things change, things stay the same.

Most importantly, however, the quest for the Investigator celebrates our Arctic heritage and speaks to the exercise of our sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago today.

Read more: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2010/08/09/jim-prentice-reclaiming-a-piece-of-our-history/#ixzz0wEB3dyOD

The Secluded Parts of the Soul

Solitary Tree, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Tim Noakes has learned many things from his journeys, most of them personal rather than geographical. About humility, honesty, perseverance. Not all of the lessons have been easy. They “taught me a heightened degree of self-criticism and self-expectation.”

Surrounded by fellow travelers, Noakes noticed things about them too. He saw patterns of behavior similar to his own “a love of privacy, an overwhelming desire for solitude, and an inability to relax or talk in company.”

Tim Noakes

They shared “mental behaviors that include daydreaming, absentmindedness, procrastination and … the eternal quest to understand the riddles of life.”

“The point is reached when fatigue drives us back into ourselves,” Noakes writes “into those secluded parts of our souls that we discover only under times of such duress and from which we emerge with a clearer perspective of the people we truly are.”

These are interesting points, if ones commonly invoked in the literature of exploration and adventure. What makes Noakes’ points particularly interesting though is that he is not describing explorers or adventurers.

He is talking about runners.

“Runners have been shown to score higher on psychological scales that measure needs for thrill and adventure, and one study has suggested that running may be an important method for thrill and adventure seekers to acquire sufficient sensory input to keep their needs satisfied.”

As I read this in Noakes’ thousand-page book, The Lore of Running, I took notice. It not only spoke to my interests as a scholar, but profiled me precisely as a runner.

I’ve loved running since high school,  when I abandoned swimming for cross country. I didn’t think much of the switch at the time. Swimming was boring. In the blue nothingness of the pool, I felt like I was exercising in space, struggling to feel something  in a sensory deprivation tank.

Running cross country, by contrast, set me on fire. The world moved by so quickly, in a blur of forest, root, and field. And each race was a story, a chase up and down muddy paths. It hurt. It was exhausting. It filled me up.

After high school, I ran less. Or more accurately, I ran too much and, once hurt, stopped altogether. In college and during my years in Egypt, I gave into other pursuits, found other ways of reaching “the secluded parts of the soul.” And since then I’ve oscillated between lifestyles active and passive, running, resting, running again.

But over the last twelve months  I’ve come back to the road with new resolve. I’ve been offering the same justifications for it that I always have: It’s good for me. It calms me down.

Yet reading Noakes makes me realize that there are deeper motives too.

Thrill-seeking and risk taking were once a big — perhaps the biggest — part of my life, but it’s a part that I’ve had to alter to fit with my other roles as husband, father, and professor. This is a common experience, I know. We are led to believe that perilous experience, both physical and emotional, is a young person’s game, that age induces caution as if it were encoded into our DNA, as biologically determined as a receding hairline.

But is it?

Does the hunger for transcendent experience really fade? Or is it that our lives become more complicated, forcing this desire to become something else? Do we lose it, or simply transmute it into something less volatile, something that will fit within the structures of the middle-adult life without blowing it apart?

The explorer risks death. He spends months or years away from home. But the scholar of exploration sleeps at home at night, works inside, gives himself over to the experience of hypoxia and frostbite without trips to the hospital.

So too the act of running creates a world of thrills with comparatively few risks. Most of the time my runs are routine, but every few weeks there are moments which are special, even transcendent.

Last November, I went running in Phoenix at dawn. Mexican fan palms towered above me on each side of 9th Avenue. Even in the middle of the city, the mountains and sky seemed everywhere, the world so big and quiet that I felt, as Noakes would put it “driven back into myself” an experience of beauty and aloneness so profound I had to stop and give myself over to it. Maybe this was really the point, the true object of my perpetual motion. I thought about this for a minute. Then I kept running.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,644 other followers