Archive for Popular Culture
Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, November 1881
Only after Adolphus Greely had directed his men to build their long bunk house at Fort Conger, when the long night of winter had descended on Lady Franklin Bay, did he direct the party to begin preparations for using the Peirce No. 1. Greely was a man who, much like Israel, was comfortable with data collection and precision instruments. He had overseen the creation of a vast telegraph network in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, becoming the Army’s top meteorologist. Perhaps this was a reason for the close bond that grew up between the two men. Greely identified a site on the north side of the house, a space sheltered under a canvas lean-to, where the pendulum could be placed. A party began digging the holes and pouring the Portland cement piers that would anchor the instrument. Digging frozen ground in the dark at -30°F wasn’t pleasant work and even Greely, not inclined to complain about conditions, described the process as “tedious and trying.” The men built an ice house around the pendulum frame to protect it from the elements and to stabilize its temperature. They placed a glass window with the wall in order for Israel to record measurements without entering the ice house. Only then did they remove the pendulum from its tin shroud and long wooden case. There, they hung it to swing in its dark, frigid chamber.
The delay in setting up the pendulum was deliberate. Peirce had recognized that the Arctic winter offered special advantages for pendulum use. The frozen ground firmed up the support of the concrete piers, reducing the flexure of the frame that might change the duration of the pendulum’s swing. In winter, the frigid Arctic air was very dry, reducing humidity that would deposit moisture on the pendulum, skewing its weight. Finally, the depth of winter would also bring greater consistency of temperature, important to limit any expansion or contraction of the metal itself.
Yet for Israel, the difficult work was only beginning. The relative simplicity of the Peirce No. 1 belied the complexity of Peirce’s instructions. The Superintendent had given Israel a daunting list of requirements for the pendulum’s proper use. Israel needed to swing the pendulum within a very specific range of motion: not larger than 25/1000ths and not smaller than 5/1000ths of the arc radius. The pendulum had to be swung for ninety minutes, reversed, and swung again for thirty. This series needed to be repeated multiple times, so that the total time of pendulum measurements reached six hours a day.
In addition to marking each swing over time, Israel had to record temperatures as well. Since the thermometer couldn’t touch the pendulum, Peirce directed Israel to set up thermometers near the top and the bottom of the instrument, making sure that each did not vary perceptibly from one another or over the time of the swing. Finally, Israel had to measure the flexure of the frame itself, which Peirce instructed, could not vary more than 1/200th of a millimeter. Although the glass window allowed Israel to measure each swing from the comfortable distance of the house, he still had to swing the pendulum, measure temperature, and look for microscopic flexures of the frame. In the end, Greely records that “for sixteen days in January 1882 he diligently swung Peirce Pendulum No. 1 in a specially constructed ice shelter.” After the sixteen-day series was complete, the pendulum was placed within its slender wood box and sealed once again in tin, to wait for its transport home with the party in the summer of 1882. The entire sequence of the pendulum experiment, from Peirce’s training to Israel’s execution had been meticulously planned and executed. For Greely and his party it represented a triumph of science over sensationalism, one that would contrast sharply and tragically with the catastrophe that followed.
Cape Sabine, Ellesmere Island, 1884
The expedition that came to relieve the Greely Party at Fort Conger in 1882 was turned back by ice. Greely and his men, despondent at the lack of relief, overwintered for a second year and waited for the arrival of a second relief expedition in 1883. Yet this expedition, too, failed to reach Fort Conger, crushed by pack ice in the southern reaches of Smith Sound. As it became clear that the second expedition was not going to arrive in 1883, Greely made preparations to evacuate Fort Conger and travel south in small boats.
The forced retreat created a dilemma for Greely and his men. It was crucial to return the pendulum to Washington so that it could be inspected and swung again by Peirce, confirming the measurements taken at Fort Conger. Yet the pendulum in its tin case and wooden crate added over forty kilograms of dead weight to an increasingly desperate escape effort.
Greely hoped to find stores near Cape Sabine left by the relief expeditions. Yet arriving at the southern reaches of Smith Sound, the party found few provisions. With little hope of finding more food, the party would now have to carry the pendulum as they dragged their boats over the pack ice. Greely took the issue to his men:
I informed the men that I was unwilling, much as I wanted to save that instrument, to lessen their chances of life by hauling it longer, unless all concurred, and that it would be dropped whenever they wished. Not only was there no objection to keeping it, but several of the party were outspoken in considering it unmanly to abandon it. Such a spirit is certainly most credible.’
The men continued to carry the pendulum, stripping off the tin shroud to reduce weight. Eventually, they cached the Peirce No. 1 on Stalknecht Island, just off the shore of Cape Sabine. While it had functioned as a precision instrument in Washington and Fort Conger, the Peirce No. 1 now became a rescue beacon for relief ships entering Smith Sound, its long box anchored as a tower to the rock cairn to make it more visible, a note tucked within the rocks giving the party’s location on Cape Sabine.
During the winter and spring of 1884, the members of the Greely party slowly succumbed to starvation. On 27 May 1884, Israel began speaking quietly of home, his mother’s cooking. He became delirious and died. Greely, who shared a sleeping bag with Israel during their final desperate months, wrote that he “learned to love him like a brother.” When Greely conducted Israel’s burial, he edited the Christian service to make it consistent with the astronomer’s Jewish faith. Twenty four days after Israel died, a rescue party under the command of Winfield Schley arrived at Cape Sabine where they found Greely and six men close to death, the last survivors of the twenty-five men crew. Schley had expected to find Greely further north at Fort Conger, but his men saw the cairn on Stalknecht Island and went to investigate. There, they found the tall pendulum in its box, still projecting upwards from the rocks.
Washington D C., August, 1884
Thousands of well-wishers turned out in Portsmouth New Hampshire to welcome Greely and his men home. The day was filled with speeches and a parade of over two thousand. Speaking of the value of the expedition, Senator Eugene Hale of Maine told the crowds, “Nothing dims its record. There was no insubordination, no blundering, no losing of the head.” Hale’s remarks were premature. As he spoke, evidence was emerging that some members of the party had resorted to cannibalism in their final months at Cape Sabine. The press also discovered that the Greely party was riven by conflicts, especially during the long retreat from Fort Conger when Greely’s officers had almost relieved Greely of his command. As these discoveries swirled in the pages of the popular press, Greely defended himself, the bravery of the party, and the expedition’s commitment to science.
Key to this defense was the party’s unanimous decision to carry the Peirce No. 1 out of the Arctic despite its weight. Greely chronicled this event in his final report, and it also appeared in the Coast Survey report as well as popular press accounts. As a result, the pendulum gained symbolic importance. It was at this moment, ironically, that Peirce began to question the instrument’s scientific value. He had measured the pendulum at the Coast Survey Building in late 1884 and observed that its length and mass had changed significantly since 1881. As a benchmark of Israel’s Arctic measurements, then, the pendulum seemed useless. Greely was furious, defending himself and Israel in a letter that he attached to Peirce’s report. Yet the long brass bar yielded results of a different kind. While it may have failed to measure the contours of the earth, in the eyes of many nineteenth-century Americans, it offered something more valuable in return: a measure of scientific spirit and manly character, one that protected Greely and the reputation of the expedition party in the decades to come.
[This essay was published by the journal Endeavour in December 2012: 36(4):187-90]
 Greely quoted from Three Years of Arctic Service: An Account of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884 (New York, 1894) 1:119.
 C.S. Peirce, “General Instructions for Observing Oscillating Pendulums,” (1881) from The Peirce Edition Project, http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/writings/v6/W6ann/W6ann30.htm
 Introduction, Writings of Charles S. Peirce: 1886-1890 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 6: xxx.
 Guttridge, Ghosts, 151-199.
 Greely, Arctic Service, “Arctic Journal” dated 17 Sept 1883. 1:509-10
 Eugene Hale quoted in William McGinley, Reception of Lieut. A. W. Greely, U. S. A., and His Comrades, and of the Arctic Relief Expedition, at Portsmouth, N. H., on August 1 and 4, 1884 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884), 35.
 Rebecca Herzig writes about the value of hardship in the Greely Expedition in Suffering for Science (Rutgers University Press, 2005), 64-84. Also see “The Magnetic and Tidal Work of the Greely Arctic Expedition,” Science 9 (4 March 1887): 215-217; Editorial, Science 4 (1 August 1884): 94; Daniel Gilman, “Reception of the Greely Arctic Explorer, Lieutenant Greely, U. S. A.,” Johns Hopkins University Circulars 4 (March 1885): 54.
Would you climb an 8000-meter mountain? Descend in a submersible seven miles under the sea? Pilot a shuttle back to earth at 17,000mph? Most of us choose other paths. The astronaut who arcs around the earth every ninety minutes seems to trace out a life faster and wilder than ours down below, where we make the slow orbit from home to work and home again. It’s understandable, then, why we place explorers and adventurers in a category by themselves, honor them with statues, magazine covers, and tickertape parades. Those who take such risks, these travelers of the extreme, seem to shine with a different light. They do otherworldly things and appear, at times, born of other worlds themselves, brought up within the same towns perhaps, attending the same schools, but made alien through the crucible of perilous experience. Or, perhaps, they were alien to begin with, living among us, sharing our food and oxygen, but pushed by different winds, compelled like Icarus to fly towards the sun. We laugh at Tom Wolfe when he tells us that astronauts are made of the right stuff, but we believe him. Whether by nature or by experience, explorers seem set apart. They are different.
If this is so, what makes them different? Is it their endurance of risk? Among modern day explorers and adventurers, astronauts experience the most risk. As they enter their spacecraft, they know that they have a one to two percent chance of not coming back. This is a much higher risk than piloting a commercial plane, hand gliding, or bungee jumping. Still, it is not beyond other earthly perils. Most astronauts only make one or two flights into space. Seen as a cumulative risk over the course of their careers, astronauts endure about the same odds of death as loggers and fishermen. Yet the dangers of exploding space craft, sinking ships, and falling trees are dwarfed by the perils of getting old, perhaps the riskiest human activity of all. Being 80 years old for six months carries with it twice the risk of death of suiting up for a flight on the space shuttle. If we value risk as a measure of mettle, then, we should be looking to verandas and nursing homes rather than the void of space.
This comparison falls short because it ignores the question of motive. Risk attends many things. We need to work. We cannot help getting old. But explorers and adventurers choose risk over safer pursuits, accept danger in their quest for something else. If risk, by itself, signifies little, risk freely accepted represents a conscious commitment. Yet commitment to what? Historically, explorers have offered many motives. The Arctic explorers of the International Polar Year (1882-1883) spoke of their desire to advance science. Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone, and Richard Burton all pursued geographical discovery, suffering malarial fevers in their quest to find the source of the Nile. The Mercury Seven, who strapped themselves to the top of Atlas rockets, spoke of their commitment to patriotism, competing with the Soviet cosmonauts for the dominance of space.
Yet these are not the only motives that draw people to the extreme. For many, the goal of the journey is risk itself. Danger is not the cost of admission, but the feature attraction. Free-solo climbing, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying are activities that do little to advance science, geography, or national pride. Yet for disciples of these sports, these activities offer the promise of exploring inner worlds: survey expeditions to map the contours of fear, endurance, and self-control. Risk is the object of these missions, the means of expanding consciousness, the catalyst of self-knowledge. If explorers and adventurers are unique, then, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes them unique. They are a diverse group, drawn to extreme experience for different reasons.
It has always been this way. The oldest stories in human history — Exodus, Gilgamesh, and The Odyssey — are travel epics, stories of knowledge gained through hardship. Yet the nature of this knowledge has always been mixed, the lessons of the voyage open to multiple interpretations. If the extreme is an oracle that offers wisdom, it is one that speaks in riddles. Does the journey give us knowledge about the world, as the work of Pliny, John Mandeville, and Marco Polo suggest? Or does it function, as Plato, Siddhārtha Gautama, and St Francis seemed to think, as a way of gaining knowledge about oneself? In practice, these two motives for travel – worldly knowledge and self-knowledge – were never mutually exclusive. Three thousand years of travel literature have combined elements of both.
Yet by the 1800s, the idea of travel started to fray and come apart. Those who identified themselves as travelers could be grouped into a large category that encompassed every itinerant from Joseph Banks, science officer of the Endeavour, to British lads on vacation. As the concept of traveler lost definition in the eighteenth century, “explorer” entered the vernacular to delineate it, to distinguish the extreme traveler and scientific investigator from more quotidian voyagers, the doe-eyed ingénues of the Grand Tour. At the same time, artists of the Romantic Period, who worshipped nature as an untamable force, identified the essence of extreme travel, the force which pulled travelers towards waterfalls, cliffs, and active volcanoes. They called it “the Sublime.”
Our ideas about the extreme were forged in this historical moment. Since the 19th century, we have expected our explorers to be researchers, to bring back specimens and samples. Yet in truth, we pay little attention to their scientific work. (For example, can you name one scientific discovery made by astronauts on the moon?). Instead, we marvel at the experience of their journeys, their perilous escapes. We read books about Shackleton, the explosion on Apollo 13, and Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. We remain conflicted about the meaning of the extreme. We expect our astronauts to be astrophysicists, but we want to them to speak to us like Major Tom. Through their eyes, we see other worlds too.
Our attempts to define the limits of the extreme will always be fraught; not merely because the diversity of motives which draw people towards it, but because of our own mixed feelings about what it means. We read books about polar explorers, attend IMAX films about disasters on Mt. Everest. We watch YouTube videos about skydivers, cave divers, and BASE jumpers. We do this, not because we seek to place these people in a special category, but because we feel drawn to this category ourselves. We imagine ourselves on the razor’s edge, on the lip of the abyss, at the boundary of life and death, and marvel at it. Sitting in beach chairs near the life guard tower, we recognize the absurdity of our condition, reading Into Thin Air as we apply SPF 50 sunscreen, projecting ourselves on the slopes of Everest as we eat gluten-free snacks. We do so in spite of the incongruity between the lives we live and the lives we imagine. We suffer these ironies because the explorer still speaks to us. We read, we watch, and in doing this, we feel more alive.
“Beyond the Extreme” was originally published in the online arts journal Drunken Boat, volume 16, available here.
Jason Anthony knows about the cuisine in Antarctica. He spent eight seasons on the southern continent in the U.S Antarctica Program. In Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, he uses this knowledge as a way of examining the culture and history of food in Antarctic exploration. It is a new approach to a topic that often considers heroism, flag planting, and sledging distances but not the stuff that most occupied the thoughts of polar explorers: food. Look for Hoosh in November when it comes out with University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpt from Hoosh, Chapter 4, “Meat and Melted Snow,” with the permission of Jason Anthony and University of Nebraska Press:
Early travel into interior Antarctica required a level of planning and austerity unsurpassed in exploration until humans ventured into space. When the men of the heroic age left their coastal huts to explore the hinterlands, they left behind the last vestige of ordinary life. No stockpiled crates of food, no fresh meat squawking outside the door; the continent offered only cold air to breathe and hard snow to melt. Sustenance was limited to what they could carry, and they could not carry much, because, paradoxically, the less food weight they carried the farther they could go. Up to a point. Robert Scott expressed the dilemma elegantly: “The issue is clear enough: one desires to provide a man each day with just sufficient food to keep up his strength, and not an ounce beyond.”
Success in sledging depended on embracing the austerity with which Antarctica greeted these men. Sledging food had to be complete but also simple, concentrated, dehydrated, compressed, calculated, and packed tightly. Most expeditions brought pemmican, a perfect endurance food used by Native Americans for millennia, and converted it on the trail to “hoosh,” their stew of pemmican and melted snow, usually thickened with crushed biscuit. This was supplemented by a carbohydrate, usually biscuits, and often some modicum of sugar, caffeine, and dairy fat. Units of each were calculated in volume and weight and accumulated only up to the thin line between starvation and distance desired.
Antarctic sledging began with Frederick Cook teaching the craft to Roald Amundsen on the Belgica. On January 30, 1898, expedition leader Adrien de Gerlache, Cook, Amundsen, and two others undertook the first Antarctic sledge journey, climbing a short distance to a peak on Brabant Island and camping for seven days. Difficult weather confined them to a “sybaritic life” in the tent, wrote Gerlache, lounging amid “the aromas of cocoa or the good and cheering smell of pea soup.” Then, at the end of winter, Amundsen, Cook, and Lecointe undertook another short sledge journey toward an iceberg from the ice-trapped Belgica. Cook reports that in their quest for fresh meat Amundsen “was solemnly appointed chairman of the order of the penguin.” They tried eating some lousy Swiss soup mix, but threw it away in order to cook up penguin breast in the same pan. That was fine, but when they made hot chocolate in the pan, remnants of the soup and penguin made it “filth” to Lecointe. He had no idea how common such filth would become in Antarctic cuisine.
Despite these pleasant origins, Antarctic sledging was often a profound exercise in risk management. A balance had to be struck between sledging goals and the reality of starvation, between ambition and death. When dogs or ponies pulled the sledge, the burden was shared, while manhauling – when men stepped into harness – was one of the most strenuous human activities ever conceived. It was a sort of voluntary slave labor in the name of patriotism and knowledge, seeking glory in laying claim to the last great blank spot on the map. Their bleak journeys were often fed more with idealism than hoosh.
In the tradition of nineteenth century European expeditions to remote areas of Africa, Asia, and the Arctic, some heroic-age expeditions brought beasts of burden to Antarctica that in hard times became meat for the hoosh. Ponies and dogs hauled and then became fodder. After his desperate experience on the ice, Douglas Mawson reasoned that “in an enterprise where human life is always at stake, it is only fair to put forward the consideration that the dogs represent a reserve of food in cases of extreme emergency.” Few things are as efficient on a life-or-death journey as the ability to eat your transportation.
Mostly this was a British affair. Of eighteen heroic-age expeditions, fifteen brought beasts of burden, but only six (four British, one Australian, one Norwegian) converted them into food. Scott’s Discovery expedition fed dogs to dogs as provisions dwindled. On Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, Siberian ponies pulled sledges full of supplies for his depots on the Ross Ice Shelf before their worn-out carcasses became supplies in the depots. Shackleton was careful to eat this fresh, heavy meat before the lightweight, concentrated pemmican they could carry farther. Sometimes they chewed raw cubes of it as they walked. “One point which struck us all,” Shackleton wrote later, “was how man’s attitude towards food alters as he goes South. At the beginning, a man might have been something of an epicure, but we found that before he got very far even raw horse-meat tasted very good.” Best of all, he said, was blood from a butchered pony frozen into an icy mass in the snow, which was then boiled to thicken the hoosh. Socks, Shackleton’s last pony, fell into a crevasse just hours before he was due to be shot and cut up for food. Shackleton later posited that “the loss of Socks, which represented so many pounds of meat,” might have cost them the Pole.
In Shackleton’s shadow, Scott returned in the Terra Nova to follow the same path to the Pole, using the same ill-suited ponies as transport. As the first five were shot along the trail, each made four or five meals for the dog teams. Scott reported that his men enjoyed the change too: “Tonight we had a sort of stew fry of pemmican and horseflesh and voted it the best hoosh we had ever had on a sledge journey.”
Sometimes it was extreme necessity that drove the men to eat the burdened beasts. Douglas Mawson and Xavier Mertz resorted to eating their dogs only when all other options had disappeared into a black crevasse. Shackleton’s Endurance tale makes it plain that once the disintegration of Weddell Sea ice forced them into crowded boats, there would be no place for their beloved dogs. Shackleton ordered them shot and eaten. It tasted “just like beef,” he said, “but, of course, very tough.”
The name most associated with eating domesticated animals in Antarctica is Roald Amundsen, whose slaughter of twenty four healthy dogs is infamous. Amundsen’s Butcher’s Shop, like Scott’s Shambles Camp, marked not just the end of these animals’ lives but also the place where carcasses were dressed for consumption. “Great masses of beautiful fresh, red meat, with quantities of the most tempting fat, lay spread over the snow,” wrote Amundsen, a hungry Norwegian epicure for whom the dogs’ corpses recalled “memories of dishes on which the cutlets were elegantly arranged side by side, with paper frills on the bones, and a neat pile of petit pois in the middle.”
The story here is neither of epicurean savagery nor even of human hunger, but of transport management. Amundsen, the most professional and shrewd of polar explorers, created a calculus of weights carried and weights consumed for every day of the roundtrip journey to the Pole. He related this to the pulling power of a dog – how many pounds on the sledge each dog could haul. As food and fuel were consumed, weight on the sledge diminished, and at a certain point that lost weight would equal a dog’s pulling power and the dog became superfluous. Amundsen then related “the average weight of edible flesh of a dog and its food value when eaten by the others. By these calculations,” he wrote, “I was able to lay out a schedule of dates upon which dog after dog would be converted from motive power into food.” In this analysis, some dogs were killed so others lived comfortably on the trail. After twenty four dogs were killed at the Butcher’s Shop and after the Norwegians had been to the Pole, six more were slaughtered, one at a time, so the surviving dogs actually gained weight on the return journey. The open question is how many more dogs might Amundsen have brought home safely had he not stuck to his calculation so firmly.Though Amundsen shows real affection for individual dogs throughout the story, he was a man on a mission. The animals were slaves to his cause, and so completely did Amundsen believe in that cause that he could write casually of their destruction: “I must admit that [the cutlets] would have lost nothing by being a little more tender, but one must not expect too much of a dog.” In fact, Amundsen expected everything of them, and he got it.
Cultural anthropologist Gerald Zhang-Schmidt argues that the modern terra incognita is found in the mysteries of culture rather than the frontiers of space.
Blank Spots on the Modern Map
Exploration seems a thing of the past. All that’s left is the frontier of space, but “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is the domain of science fiction (at least so far). Nowadays, if you want to become known through adventure, you have to run up mountains or be the first to traverse all of a continent running. Yet these are physical feats, not feats that serve the purpose of discovering something new. The blank spots on Earth, the “here be dragons” have been visited. The adventurous traveler must content himself with other perils: the local who serves him dog to eat. There are no more dragons. In fact, nowadays, there may be tourists there, and an internet café just around the corner.
Only too often, though, the familiarity hides other kinds of blank spots. In this age of tourists and adventurers, cultural anthropologists are a case of people in-between. Traditionally, they were quite close to explorers. Cultural anthropologists, of course, have sought out exotic peoples rather than peculiar geographies; reaching an uninhabited North Pole has no use when you seek to understand human cultures, after all. They also have different methods: it is standard practice to conduct long-term fieldwork with one group of people, not range far and wide. Anthropologists’ acceptance of “cultural relativism” has also, at times, separated them from explorers: one needs to understand a cultural phenomenon from within the logic of the society it belongs to, not interpret and judge it from the perspective of one’s own cultural background.
Still, cultural anthropologists were oftentimes quite public figures, rather like explorers, becoming well known for bringing back news of “the other” and their exotic ways. The whole fascination of the discipline, after all, came from the stories of persons who went out to live among other – maybe “primitive,” maybe just different – peoples and regaled us with stories of how diverse and wondrous human diversity is. Even when Japan experienced its economic boom of the 1980’s, a large part of the fascination was their different ways of thinking and acting (expressed even in popular culture, e.g. the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice,” or Michael Crichton’s novel – and the movie adaptation of it – “Rising Sun”). Recently, China has taken over the role of the powerful, yet mysterious, Asian rival that is increasingly close, yet strangely different.
Here we come full circle to how today is different: one can no longer go out to many places where no tourist has tread before. In fact, because of globalization, the traveler feels as if she has seen the world already, and while many places are still fun to visit (if exotic enough), there is nothing truly new.
Yet, even as the formerly exotic “Other” has come increasingly close – with economic globalization, with international migration – it is all the more unknown. It is even rejected for being too close for comfort, if it does not meet our terms of engagement. You find “Chinese” food virtually everywhere, but adapted to the local palate rather than how it is in China (and not just by omitting dog from the menu); you find “American culture,” but it’s really just Hollywood and McDonald’s, blue jeans and pizza.
It may not be possible to go out and find something new that will make one known as the first person to have seen it. However, the exploration of blank spots of our own personal knowledge, hidden by the superficial familiarity gained from TV and internet, has become all the more important, and worthwhile – and it is a whole treasure trove of possible experiences: about other peoples, about this planet’s ecology, and often beginning with our own cities and neighborhoods. How well do you know the people and paths in your community or the species that dwell in your own backyard?
Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist and ecologist from Austria, specialized on East Asia. For the last two and a half years he has been living in China, working as German lecturer while researching and writing on what it means to be “at
home… in China”. He is also working on the ecology of happiness and has an enduring fascination with chili peppers and their cultural-culinary significance.
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.
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.
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]
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).
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.