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On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Polar Regions

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)

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.

Space

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.

K2

Mountains

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

Field Notes: Naryan-Mar

Waterfront at midnight in Naryan-Mar, 24 June 2010

The town of Naryan-Mar sits at the apex of the Pechora River delta in the Russian European Arctic. It is the capital of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO), a Florida-sized region of tundra and taiga at 69° N.

Pechora River Basin. The Pechora flows north into the Barents Sea. Its watershed extends east to the Ural Mountains (bottom right)

In late June, I attended the Arctic Perspectives XXI conference in Naryan-Mar along with participants from Russia, Finland, Canada, and the U.S. We represented many fields: history, geography, anthropology, medicine, and Arctic studies.

Flying into Naryan Mar reminded me of flying into Barrow Alaska at 71° N: both are set in flat landscapes, surrounded by green, marshy tundra that extends to the horizon. Thousands of lakes and ponds mark both regions, and in Naryan-Mar, the Pechora River and its tributaries coil and swirl their way north,  like some vast design from the Book of Kells.

Pechora River near the northern delta, 68 N latitude.

Pechora River near the northern delta, 68 N latitude.

Once on the ground, though, it was easy to see the differences between the two towns. The population of Naryan Mar is three times larger than Barrow (which is just over 5,000). Naryan Mar has trees, albeit small ones, while Barrow — at least the Barrow I remember visiting in 2004 – has few life forms apart from dogs, residents, and tundra.

Both cities have benefited from the oil economy of the Arctic, but Naryan-Mar shows the flush of oil money: a new civic center, flat-screen public displays, a new cultural center, and a significant port center.

Downtown Naryan Mar at 1 am

Naryan-Mar also feels more European. While 61% of Barrow residents are Inupiat, only 11% of the NAO are Nenets, the reindeer-herding people who have inhabited this region since the 12th century.  (I could not find any demographics for Naryan-Mar itself, but it seemed to follow this ratio). 67% of Naryan-Mar residents are Caucasian.

The conference sessions presented some terrific work — on polar medicine, energy competition and independence, Arctic nationalism, ecology, and history —  yet the differences among the papers made it difficult to find threads strong enough to hold them all together thematically.

Lassi Heininen (University of Lapland) giving lecture translated by Olga Zhitova

Ultimately, though, the conference succeeded less as a place to exposit work than to explore ideas.  I offered an paper on the methodology of studying Arctic exploration (which I will present in a later post), a subject that may have been relevant to — at most — one or two other participants. And I did not hear any papers that had a direct bearing on my current work.

Victor Dmitriev (Arctic and Antarctic Institute, St Petersburg) giving a toast.

But the papers – and especially the participants – made a deep impression on me. The feeling of otherness that I described in my last post on Moscow seemed to be reversed in Naryan-Mar. I was surrounded by scholars who love the Arctic, who come to it from different countries and different perspectives, and who desired to communicate their work (and something of themselves) to their peers.

Nenets elder welcomes us to Bugrino settlement, Kolguev Island

Leaving Kolguev Island, Barents Sea, 71 degrees N. latitude

I will never forget it.

Travel Tips on raveable

Field Notes: Moscow

In the Moscow Metro

As someone who studies travel, and loves to travel, it still makes me feel self-conscious at times to BE a traveler. This is because the experience of travel rarely feels purely experiential to me: sensations of places, people, and things are always mediated by ideas of travel, by my awareness of the histories of exploration, contact, and encounter. In short, I rarely seem to find the “raw feed” of the travel experience. When it arrives, there is always a news ticker scrolling somewhere at the bottom of the screen.

I imagine that psychologists go through something like this when talking to their therapists. Does the shrink-on-the-couch recall her experiences as pure sensory feed, a chronicle of acts and feelings that follow in easy succession? I doubt it. She must be analyzing these acts as she recalls them, “shrinking” her own actions as she relates them to her therapist.

Chris McCandless

This is not unique. One does not have to be a historian of exploration or therapist to weave third-person narratives out of one’s first-person encounters. Chris McCandless, idealistic explorer of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, writes a journal about his travels as if they were happening to someone else, an else that McCandless even gives a name “Alex Supertramp.”

In this conscious creation of an alternate self, McCandless is tipping his hand: travel is not really the subject of his drama; it is merely the stage for self-discovery, a platform upon which he (Chris/Alex) acts the part of heroic protagonist and omniscient narrator. Not all travelers are so dramatically inclined, but it does lead us to a broader question: can we ever experience the journey as  raw feed of new experience? Is it ever possible to turn the news ticker off really?

And if travel experiences are unavoidably hybrid and impure, jumbled together with  ideas about places and our ideas about ourselves, why do they still manage to affect us so deeply? These were the questions that took hold of me in Moscow as I prepared for my journey to  Naryan-Mar, a small Arctic city near the Barents Sea in a region known as the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO). I was heading there for the Arctic Perspectives XXI Conference, an international, interdisciplinary gathering of scholars talking about about circumpolar issues in the far north.

By any literary measure, my 48 hours in Moscow were uneventful. I did not get arrested. I wasn’t poisoned or ransomed. I did not suffer from a temporary bout of amnesia. Nor did Moscow resemble the exotic communist fantasy of the Western imagination. The Moscow of 2010 is not Stalin’s Moscow or Gorbachev’s or even Yeltsin’s. It is a modern European capital ablaze with neon, populated by chic clubs and fast food restaurants.

House of the Embankment (Dom Naberezhnoy) during rush hour

And yet I found it amazingly, frighteningly, marvelously other. It was most dramatically other in language. I do not speak more than 50 words of Russian and can only slowly decipher Cyrillic script. But the experience of foreignness went deeper, attaching itself to little things rather than big ones.  Circular outlets. Underground crosswalks. Conventions of dress. Codes of conduct in the metro. On the train. In the airport. In the cafe. These are the quotidian marvels that every traveler experiences, the state of being a stranger in a strange land.

Outlet in my hostel room

Yet however small, they are pervasive and all-encompassing.  At one level, the traveler sees Moscow as the Muscovite sees it:  a landscape of imperial edifices and perpetual motion. Yet for me, it was a landscape of little differences, some of them comprehensible, others not.  Yet more affecting was the sense that these surface differences – in language, brand names, architectural style – were the thinnest film over a great well of difference lurking beyond the visible.  Who do Russians watch at 11:30pm while Americans are watching the Late Show? When do they file their taxes? What are the Russian equivalents of the televangelist, the road trip, the visit to Burning Man? And if there are no equivalents, what are the Russian customs which defy cultural translation? What are the rhymes that parents sing to their children at night?

How can any traveler fathom the depths of such difference? How many years in Moscow would be required to apprehend it from the inside? And in this feeling of profound otherness,  I suspect there is an answer – a partial answer at least – to the question of why we travel even as we are constantly trying to analyze and box what we experience. We adopt these analytical modes — seeing oneself as a character, comparing experiences with other events, recalling background literature — because the experience of difference would otherwise overwhelm us.  They give some order – a shabby, imperfect order – to the flood of unfamiliar sights and sounds.

Even those of us who enjoy the vertigo of travel – this feeling of incomprehensible otherness – still need this crutch I think, a way of organizing what we see so we are capable of functioning. And perhaps it is more than just a crutch too. Because in rendering it in familiar terms, the travel experience becomes integrated into the world back home, a part of us despite its unfathomable nature.

Next post: Field Notes: Naryan-Mar


Travel Tips on raveable

NASA and the Ghosts of Explorers Past

Shadow Figure, image credit: Sworddancer Krusnik @ DeviantArt.com

By Michael Robinson and Dan Lester

NASA has always stood at the fulcrum of the past and future. It is the inheritor of America’s expeditionary legacy, and it is the leading architect of its expeditionary path forward. Yet the agency has found it hard to keep its balance at this fulcrum. Too often, it has linked future projects to a simplistic notion of past events. It has reveled in, rather than learned from, earlier expeditionary milestones. As NASA considers its future without the Constellation program, it is time to reassess the lessons it has drawn from history.

Statue of the 1804 Discovery Corps party, Kansas City, MO.

For example, when U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2004, the administration and NASA were quick to link it to the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, stating in the vision: “Just as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark could not have predicted the settlement of the American West within a hundred years of the start of their famous 19th century expedition, the total benefits of a single exploratory undertaking or discovery cannot be predicted in advance.” In Lewis and Clark, NASA saw a precedent for the Vision for Space Exploration: a bold mission that would offer incalculable benefits to the nation.

Yet this was a misreading of the expedition. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not leave a lasting imprint on Western exploration. The expedition succeeded in its goals, to be sure, but it failed to communicate its work to the nation. The explorers’ botanical collections were destroyed en route to the East Coast, their journals remained long unpublished, and the expedition was ignored by the press and public for almost a century. In 1809, 200 years ago last September, a despondent Lewis took his own life. NASA might do well to reflect on this somber anniversary in addition to the more positive one used to announce the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. Doing exploration, Lewis reminds us, often proves easier than communicating its value or realizing its riches.

Robert Peary in Battle Harbor. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

NASA should also remember the anniversary of Robert Peary’s expedition to reach the North Pole, completed a century ago last September. Peary’s expedition, like the ones envisioned by the Vision for Space Exploration, was a vast and complicated enterprise involving cutting-edge technology (the reinforced steamer Roosevelt) and hundreds of personnel. Peary saw it as “the cap & climax of three hundred 300 years of effort, loss of life, and expenditure of millions, by some of the best men of the civilized nations of the world; & it has been accomplished with a clean cut dash and spirit . . . characteristically American.”

Yet Peary’s race to the polar axis had little to offer besides “dash and spirit.” Focused on the attainment of the North Pole, his expedition spent little time on science. When the American Geographical Society (AGS) published its definitive work on polar research in 1928, Peary’s work received only the briefest mention. Indeed, the Augustine committee’s statement that human exploration “begin should begin with a choice of about its goals – rather than a choice of possible destinations” would have applied itself equally well to the race to the North Pole as it does the new did recent plans to race to the Moon.

Galileo's illustrations of the Moon, taken from telescopic observations, Siderius Nuncius, 1610.

But the most important anniversary for NASA to be considering is the recent 400th anniversary of Galileo’s publication of “Sidereus Nuncius” (“Starry Messenger”), a treatise in which he lays out his arguments for a Sun-centered solar system. Was Galileo an explorer in the traditional sense? Hardly. He based his findings upon observations rather than expeditions, specifically his study of the Moon, the stars, and the moons of Jupiter. Yet his telescopic work was a form of exploration, one that contributed more to geographical discovery than Henry Hudson’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage made during the same year. Galileo did not plant any flags in the soil of unknown lands, but he did something more important: helping to topple Aristotle’s Earth-centered model of the universe.

As NASA lays the Constellation program to rest, the distinction between “expedition” and “exploration” remains relevant today.While new plans for human space flight will lead to any number of expeditions, it doesn’t follow that these will constitute the most promising forms of exploration. Given our technological expertise for virtual presence – an expertise that is advancing rapidly – exploration does not need to be the prime justification for human space flight anymore.

The Augustine committee has shown the courage to challenge the traditional view of astronauts as explorers in its “Flexible Path” proposal, a plan to send humans at first into deep space, perhaps doing surveillance work on deep gravity wells, while rovers conduct work on the ground. Critics have derisively called it the “Look But Don’t Touch” option, one that will extend scientific exploration even if it does not include any “Neil Armstrong moments.”

Yet perhaps 2010 is the year when we challenge the meaning of “exploration.” For too long, NASA has been cavalier about this word. Agency budget documents and strategic plans continue to use it indiscriminately as a catch-all term for any project that involves human space flight. Yet this was not always the case. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the formal constitution of the agency, doesn’t mention the word in any of the eight objectives that define NASA’s policy and purpose. Rather, NASA’s first directive is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

Geysers in the southern hemisphere of Enceladus, photographed by Cassini spacecraft, 27 November 2005

Perhaps the best way forward, then, starts with a more careful look back. The world has changed since Lewis and Clark, with technology that would have stunned the young explorers. In the year of “Avatar,” we need to think differently about the teams who direct rovers across the martian landscape, pilot spacecraft past the geysers of Enceladus and slew telescopes across the sky. These technologies are not static in their capabilities, nor as are the humans who control them. Their capabilities advance dramatically every year, and the public increasingly accepts them as extensions of our intellect, reach, and power. As Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole illustrates, toes in the dirt (or in his case, ice) don’t necessarily yield new discoveries.

Of course robots and telescopes can’t do everything. A decision that representatives of the human species must, for reasons of species survival, leave this Earth and move to other places would make an irrefutable case for human space flight. But that need has never been an established mandate. It isn’t part of our national space policy. As we celebrate NASA’s 50th anniversary, NASA begins its sixth decade, do we have the courage to look beyond our simplistic notions of exploration’s past to find lasting value in the voyages of the future?

Michael Robinson is an assistant history professor at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College in Connecticut. Dan Lester is an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin.

This essay appears here courtesy of Space News where it was published on 8 February 2010.

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